Cruel Cut: Female Circumcision in East Africa

Kenya 2012

By Sanchita Sharma

June 26, 2012

Also published in the Hindustan Times

Vivian Magero, 23, was nine when she narrowly escaped female genital mutilation (FGM), also referred to as female circumcision. Ironically, it wasn't her tribe, community or parents who were forcing her to get circumcised. She wanted it, so badly that she escaped the cut only because her parents caught her trying to run away from home to get circumcised.

"I'm a Luo -- the tribe to which U.S. President Barack Obama's father belonged -- who do not traditionally circumcise, but I grew up among the Kuria tribe, where it was practised. You could not get married if you were not circumcised, so there was a lot of pressure on Kurian girls from not just parents and community elders but also friends," says Magero.

"Some tribes believe that FGM is a rite of passage to womanhood for girls and prepares them for marriage. It is believed to lower female libido and is linked to premarital virginity and marital fidelity," says Kerry Kyaa, an east Africa research fellow with the British Institute in East Africa, who has extensively researched the practice.

"Circumcised girls had better marriage prospects and there were week-long parties to announce the circumcision. Traditional circumcisers, usually women, used crude tools, metal and glass to cut without anaesthesia," says Kyaa. After the cut, the girls are traditionally taken back home by the community amidst singing and dancing and money is pinned on to their 'shukas', or the one-piece sheet the circumcised tie around themselves to let the blood drip freely.

Unlike male circumcision that protects against HIV and sexually-transmitted infections, FGM has no health benefits for girls and women. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, severe bleeding, tetanus or sepsis (acute bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores and injury to genital tissue. Long-term effects are formation of scar tissue, cysts, infections, infertility and childbirth complications, including increased risk of mother and newborn deaths, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the it has religious support. Currently, about 140 million girls and women worldwide are living the the consequences of circumcision, shows WHO data. In Africa, an estimated 92 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.

"My parents were against FGM, but I wanted to do it because all my friends were getting it done. They would come back from holidays with a lot of  money  -- if you don't cry when you face the knife without anaesthesia, people give you money -- and stories of month-long celebrations. The peer pressure was huge: I wanted it too, especially after I was called a slut for not being circumcised," says Magero.

"Kenya banned FGM in September last year, making it illegal to practice, seek it or take someone abroad to get it done," says Kyaa. The law also bans derogatory remarks about women who do not undergo FGM. In Africa, some of the countries that have banned it include Benin, Chad, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.

"I was lucky that my brother squealed and I got caught and spanked. Even after that, I felt so pressured by my friends -- who said I was not a good woman, that I would not have kids, that I would never find a man -- that my parents would take me out of town during all holidays to escape the peer pressure," says Magero.

Now she goes home and asks girls not to get circumcised. "After FGM, most girls drop out of school and get married, often to much older men who can pay the highest bride price. Many of the girls I went to school with are now one of many wives and have four to five kids. Most avoid me, but the few I've met regret getting married so young," she says.