The fight to end female circumcision in rural Kenya

Kenyan women protest against female genital mutilation

For this Humanosphere podcast, we explore one community’s battle to end the practice of female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision. Our Nairobi-based correspondent Charlie Ensor interviews the leader of an organization based in northern, rural Kenya, where this harmful, traditional surgical technique is illegal but still widely practiced.

Samuel Leadismo

Charlie talks to Samuel Leadismo, founder of an organization known as the Pastoralist Child Foundation, in Samburu County, where female genital mutilation (FGM) is thought to still be done on nearly all girls shortly before they reach puberty. Since Kenya made FGM illegal, the overall rate across the country fell from 38 per cent in 1998 to 21 percent in 2014.

But, as Samburu County indicates, some communities are stubbornly adhering to this practice of cutting or removing external portions of female genitalia to signify when a girl’s passage into womanhood. As in Samburu County, this practice is often accompanied by child marriage.

The health impacts of FGM include raised risk of infections, difficulties urinating, the development of cysts and infection, chronic pain, infertility, and often complications during childbirth. The practice is common across Africa, Asia and in the Middle East. Last year UNICEF estimated that 200 million girls across the world had the surgery performed.

Leadismo is Samburu, a semi-nomadic pastoralist farming people related to the Maasai. Leadismo’s organization believes the Kenyan government’s law-enforcement approach to stopping FGM (the country banned it in 2011) is not effective, and alienates communities who then practice FGM ‘under cover.’ His group instead emphasizes girls’ and women’s empowerment, human rights, and education as a means to end this horrible practice.

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“Without education there is no way that we can eradicate FGM because there is no way that those girls will speak for themselves,” Leadismo told Humanosphere. “We want to give girls education; we want to empower them; we want to give them knowledge to speak for themselves.”

Members of the Samburu community in northern Kenya

Initially the community was hostile to Leadismo, believing that he was trying to change the Samburu culture beyond recognition. He talks about how the elders in his community – who are the decision-makers in the community – used to threaten him. But by educating people and promoting alternative rites of passage that honor some of the same traditions, Leadismo says they are making progress against FGM.

So listen in on Charlie’s chat with Leadismo and learn how one organization is helping a community reduce harmful behavior by educating, empowering girls and providing a viable alternative to deeply rooted traditions.

As usual, before we get to the interview we like to review some of the more important or most interesting stories of the week. Our regular podcast producer, Imana Gunawan, is off dancing in Vermont this week so the introductory chat is handled by two Toms, Publisher Tom Paulson and chief correspondent Tom Murphy.

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The first story they highlight is by Joanne Lu reporting that life expectancy is increasing in most parts the world, with the fastest rate of improvement in South Korea among women, while it is declining in the US. Why does the richest country in the world have some of the worst health indicators? Good question; that’s another story. The two Toms also discuss two of Murphy’s stories, one on the Trump Administration’s unpopular budget proposal to cut aid and diplomacy to fund a bigger military and another on the Global Fund restarting its search for a new director due, in part, to finding a chief that fits with the new, somewhat anti-aid and isolationist US government.

Finally, the two Toms discuss Lisa Nikolau’s story on a new study that says of the 21 million people who are trafficked into forced labor worldwide, an increasing number of them are men and children. The majority of trafficking victims continue to be women, whether it is sex trafficking or some other form of forced labor. Some experts believe this demographic shift may be due to countries cracking down on sex trafficking.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com

  • Pangea Giving

    Pangea Giving, a Seattle based giving circle, supports two organizations with effective programs that encourage girls, their families, and in many cases, entire villages, to renounce female genital mutilation. One group in Meru has created an alternative rite of passage workshop for girls that incorporates the wisdom and mentorship of community women who were previously supporters of the traditional cutting practice assuring that there is cultural continuity even as this harmful practice is left behind. For more information please contact us at info@pangeagiving.org.

  • TLCTugger

    It will be a lot easier to end female genital mutilation when we draw a bright line and loudly say NO to ALL forced or coerced genital cutting. Boys and intersex children need protection.

    Circumcision alters sex dramatically. Foreskin feels REALLY good. Informed adults can decide for themselves.