Kenya could end female genital mutilation in a generation, campaigners from its conservative Maasai and Kuria communities said on Tuesday – but only if men are brought on board.
The east African country has seen a sharp decline in the internationally condemned ritual, but it remains deeply entrenched among several ethnic groups.
“Our men tell me it’s a woman’s affair and we are not getting involved. But this is not a woman’s affair, it’s everyone’s issue,” said Amos Leuka, a junior Maasai elder working to persuade his community to abandon the practice.
He said cutting was seen as an important rite of passage which conferred status on girls among the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people known for their distinctive red robes.
Traditionally, Maasai men would not marry an uncut woman because she would not be allowed to join in important cultural celebrations and their children would be considered illegitimate, he said.
Unless men were involved in efforts to end the practice it would continue, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after speaking at an event in London on Tuesday to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
Leuka said elders were for the first time openly questioning the ritual, which involves the partial or total removal of a girl’s external genitalia.
“The elders are now talking in public about this which has never happened before,” said Leuka, a former teacher and co-founder of grassroots project SAFE Maa.
“They see it harms girls and are saying it cannot continue. Their involvement will have a big impact.”
SAFE Maa, which uses traditional songs and storytelling to change attitudes, is trying to replace FGM with an alternative rite of passage to mark a girl’s coming of age.
Leuka said he would hold such ceremonies for his daughters, aged five and 10, to promote the idea.
FGM, which affects at least 200 million girls and women globally, can cause serious physical and mental health problems.
World leaders have pledged to end the practice by 2030 under global development goals agreed in 2015.
But campaigners believe this is unlikely given the lack of progress in many countries where it remains rife.
On Tuesday, the United Nations said population growth in FGM-affected countries meant the estimated number of girls cut each year could rise from 3.9 million to 4.6 million by 2030.
Superstitions and stigma
In Kenya, around a fifth of women aged 15 to 49 have been cut, down from 38 percent in 1998, according to national data.
Campaigners say this is partly due to growing urbanisation. However, rates remain very high among the Somali, Kuria, Samburu and Maasai ethnic groups.
Natalie Robi, a campaigner from the Kuria community, said it was crucial to end the stigma around uncut girls in order to eliminate FGM.
Robi, who was not cut as a girl because her mother was from another tribe, said she had been shunned while growing up and was still taunted. Marrying an uncut girl was taboo, she said.
However Robi, founder of grassroots group Msichana Empowerment Kuria, said education projects using storytelling had turned around attitudes in her village where cutting rates had fallen from 80 percent to 40 percent in five years.
Education was key to debunking myths which shore up the practice, she said – uncut women are forbidden from picking vegetables or collecting water for fear they will kill crops or dry up rivers.
“As a young woman who has not been cut I cannot talk to an elder, but I can talk to a young person who will be an elder in the future,” she said.
“Young people are the ones who will make the difference. They will not cut their own children.”