“I have fought for 18 years to achieve this legislation. Today is Independence Day for women. Men got their independence in 1963 – but today women have achieved independence from the cruel hands of society.” Those are the words that were exuberantly uttered by nominated MP Sophia Abdi Noor when parliament finally passed the bill outlawing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya last week.
Just three months ago, Sophia Noor moved the August House with her harrowing personal experience of the FGM ordeal when she rose to support the Bill to outlaw female circumcision.
She was barely eight years old when together with seven of her age mates she was handed over to a traditional circumciser who took them through the excruciating process of the cut. The old woman who took them through the process was going blind and three of the eight who underwent the operation, one of them her very close friend, died due to excessive bleeding. Luckily for Sophia Noor the bleeding was not too much and her father, who was a policeman, took her to a hospital in Garissa using a police Land Rover. “It’s a very painful psychological experience with some dying and that there is no homestead that has no sad story arising from circumcision”, says Noor
For centuries, FGM was performed openly in Kenya, in most cases as part of traditional ceremonies. It went underground after being outlawed in 1999; however it was being practiced in secrecy and the Government did not put the ban into law, thereby making it difficult to prosecute the culprits.
Approximately 28 percent of women in Kenya have undergone FGM, with the highest numbers being recorded among the Somalis and Kisii communities. The practice rates 98 percent among the Somalis, 96 percent among the Kisii, 73 percent among the Maasai and 48 percent among the Kalenjins. FGM is still a cultural practice these communities are not ready to abandon.
The Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2008/2009, however, indicated that FGM appears to be declining with overall prevalence reducing from 38 percent in 1998, 32 percent in 2003 to 27 percent in 2008 among women aged 15-49, a decline in the practice has been accredited to increased levels of education in the communities involved.
The historic law passed by Parliament last week makes female circumcision officially illegal in Kenya. The Private Members’ Bill, sponsored by Mt Elgon MP Fred Kapondi, makes it illegal to practice female circumcision, procure the services of a circumciser, or send somebody out of the country to undergo the illegal ‘cut’. Offenders will serve up to 7 years in prison and fines of up to Sh500, 000. Moreover, anyone who causes death in the process of carrying out FGM will be liable to life imprisonment.
In a statement issued from State House Nairobi on Wednesday, the First Lady Mrs. Kibaki thanked the tenth Parliament for passing the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Bill 2010, saying the prohibition of FGM will have a positive impact on the development of girls and women.
“Girls in communities where FGM is common now have no cause for worry and can be able to concentrate on their education,” said the First Lady.
As reported by Sarah Bosely of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Kenya now follows a number of African governments in outlawing the practice. ‘Nobody imagines this means FGM will never take place again in Kenya’, she wrote, ‘but making it illegal is a massive step towards changing attitudes and giving strength to those who oppose the practice’.
According to the Pan African news agency, at the time of the African Union summit in June, which proposed prohibition of FGM, Benin, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Central African Republic, Senegal, Chad, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda already had legislation against it but despite this ‘the cut’ is still widely practiced in five of these countries (Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Guinea) and in Mali, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
In line with international practice it is now the duty of states to promote and protect human rights at the national level. In its 85th Plenary Meeting held on 20th December 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. It encourages governments to take steps to ensure that women are protected from all forms of violence be it of physical, sexual psychological nature. Among specific acts of violence delineated in the declaration are sexual offences, battering, marital rape, FGM and dowry related violence.
The Sexual Offences Act (SOA) which came into force on 21 July 2006, provides for the prevention and protection of all persons from harmful and unlawful sexual acts.
It is one thing to make laws, however, and quite another to enforce them. The Forum hopes that, as the law awaits presidential assent, FGM will finally became a folk tale and cease to be a fearful and barbaric reality in Kenya.