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Kenya Correspondent, Gitonga Njeru – WNN Features
Pokot District, Kenya: Human rights lawyers are asking Kenyan men to be a stronger part of the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), which despite being illegal in Kenya, is still widely practiced by some communities.
One of the communities that has not yet abandoned FGM is Kenya’s Pokot community. Unfortunately in the district, many men in the region, and throughout Africa, still encourage circumcisers to continue the practice.
Most Pokot men place value and usually demand that a woman must be circumcised in order to marry, but there are some growing exceptions to this rule.
“I was circumcised as a little girl and I managed to get a husband,” says Selina Lorupe, a 43 year old mother of 2 children. “Many women in my Pokot community continue to be circumcised. It is part of our culture but other women are slowly resisting this move,” she highlights.
Numbers from The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization, a group that fights for the rights of women in Africa, estimate that 500 young Pokot girls and women were circumcised, in only one month, last December 2009, alone.
Despite FGM being rampant among the Pokot, advocacy groups are working hard to educate local women about the health dangers associated with the practice. But society pressures sometimes outweigh education. Advocates have noticed some improvements through their campaigns, but improvements over the past years have been backsliding.
More Pokot men are now marrying women outside their communities, from places such as the Kikuyu, Meru, and Kuria, where the practice of FGM – female genital mutilation – remains intact.
Kenyan human right lawyers suggest this undermines the fight to discourage FGM, making it even more difficult to eradicate.
Prominent family lawyer and former chairperson of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), an organization that provides free legal service, Judy Thongori, says that the rural Pokot communities still practice FGM more than any other Kenyan community.
“FGM was outlawed in Kenya in early 2003, but communities are still practicing the vice,” says Judy Thongori. “The Pokot are known to be very notorious (in their approach to FGM). Even advocacy has done little to reduce incidences. Women and girls who refuse to be circumcised are often thrown out of their homes by relatives.”
“The Pokot, who straddle the Uganda-Kenya border, are one of just two groups known to carry out female circumcision in Uganda,” said a 2006 report by IRIN news, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
In addition to the usual procedures, the Pokot community often also uses a severe form of FGM called infibulation, which includes the removal of all the external genitalia. The vaginal opening is then stitched closed, leaving only a small passage.
Although 2010 figures may have slightly improved, “The estimated figure for the percentage of women and girls circumcised in West Pokot district is 96 per cent,” says a 2004 report by the ISS – Institute for Security Studies Africa.
The ritual of FGM must be seen in the context of culture. The Rift Valley Province covering the West Pokot District has a history of high priced bride dowries, even though the region suffers from abject poverty.
Men wishing to marry are often without resources to pay for dowries, which often require them to gather many herding animals to pay for a dowry before they are allowed to marry. A large herd for a dowry is often beyond their reach. This practice has created a community of raiding, higher domestic violence, violent crime and an increased familiarity and use of firearms in rural communities.
Rural Pokot woman, Sarah Lowasa, now 21 years old, is a mother who has been separated from her husband now for some years. During her marriage she was physically and emotionally abused and mistreated.
At the age of 6, Sarah experienced FGM. Today, she deeply regrets it. “No woman should go through this ordeal,” says Sarah. “This ordeal has caused me to develop a genital malformation.” Due to Sarah’s FGM complications, at the age of 6, she had to be airlifted to a Nairobi hospital because of excessive bleeding, which almost killed her.
“There is need to work with men on matters relating to FGM if this war is to be won,” reminds Sarah Lowasa. “Good legislation and punishment of the circumcisers does not yield any fruits. We as women need to encourage men to also be activists in the fight against this vice.”
As early as 2003 Kenya outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation, but the practice continues as the law is often unenforced in many regions. Because the Kenyan Pokot community borders Uganda, circumcisers sometimes take girls across the border for the procedure and bring them back home to Kenya afterward.