BY JOHN SEIPP
With much of the world still battling the effects of Covid-19, the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) has resulted in a snowballing public health crisis. This “shadow pandemic” has seen a rapid rise in FGM practices and threatens to erase the nearly three decades of progress countries have made against such procedures.
In Kenya, 4 million girls and women have undergone FMG, accounting for nearly 21% of the female population aged 15 to 49, according to the WHO. And while a large majority of Kenyans are opposed to FGM and the harmful effects it has on young girls, FGM remains a relatively common practice in the rural, Northeastern parts of Kenya.
Both the United Nations and the medical community are in clear consensus that FGM has no health benefits to women and girls. By removing otherwise healthy parts, FGM severely damages and interferes with the body’s natural functions that often results in immediate as well as long-term health complications.
There are a number of reasons why FGM varies across regions; involving a mix of sociocultural factors. In Kenya, the practice is commonly tied to poor, rural communities with a lack of access to education. Ethnically, Somali and Kisii communities tend to report higher rates of FGM, where opposition to the practice remains lower compared to other groups.
Additionally, religion has been cited as a reason for FGM, where a proportion of Kenyan Muslims believe that the practice is required. There have also been cases where FGM was carried out under the guise of a medical procedure. In some communities, the medicalization of FGM has increasingly been used as tactic by those unopposed to the practice; undermining the trust between health practitioners and the populations they serve.
Not to be left unsaid are the major social factors – and their implications – FGM has on the young girls and women of Kenya. For instance, FGM has increased gender inequality and furthered the division of opportunities available to Kenya’s youth. While boys are, for the most part, free to pursue an education and career early on, girls have relatively limited options.
In addition to living with the negative health effects of FGM, women are faced with immense societal pressure to marry; often forced and with men far older.
There are, however, some bright spots on the horizon in the fight against FGM. In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek an end to all forms of poverty by 2030. Among them was a call for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls globally.
The elimination of FGM was included as a part of this, based off of similar efforts in 2012, where the UN declared February 6th as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. As such, this year’s conversation revolved around the effects of the pandemic and what it means for FGM.
When grappling with the implications of Covid-19, FGM is often left out of the picture. But with the help of regional and global initiatives, the practice is facing a widening effort for its elimination. And with it, empowerment for the girls and women of Kenya.
Mr Seipp is an intern at NAYA and a student at American University, Washington D.C