Justifying tradition: why some Kenyan men favour FGM

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya and an ethnic Kikuyu, wrote in "Facing Mount Kenya", his 1938 study of his people's traditions, that "No proper Gikuyu [sic] would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised ..."

Sixty-seven years later, the majority of Kenya's numerous ethnic groups still practice female genital mutilation (FGM), the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia.

In November 1996 a bill that proposed banning the practice was defeated by an overwhelming majority in parliament. Daniel Arap Moi, then President of Kenya, decided to back the anti-FGM campaign, prompting parliament to finally outlaw FGM in 2001.

However, it is still widely carried out. A survey in 2003 by the Kenyan government found that an estimated 32 percent of women had undergone the procedure. FGM prevalence varies between ethnic groups, from an almost universal 99 percent in Kenya's northeast, to just four percent among ethnic communities in the country's western province. In many cases, legislation has merely driven the practice underground, and led to a lowering of the age at which girls are cut.

Most ethnic groups in Kenya perform FGM between the ages of 12 and 15, when a girl is supposed to become eligible for marriage. However, that age has been dropping to avoid prosecution, and resistance by the girls when they are older.

Despite numerous international campaigns against what is considered by many - including Kenyans - as a harmful traditional custom, male supporters offer various arguments in favour of the practice, described by human rights group Amnesty International (AI) as an "ordeal for women".

An issue of promiscuity?

Gerald Njuki, 36, comes from Embu, Central Kenya, where FGM is traditionally practiced by his ethnic group. However, his wife is a Kikuyu who has not been circumcised, despite her ethnic group's tradition. They have a 10-year-old daughter, whom Njuki would like to submit to circumcision, but his wife disagrees.

When asked why he was in favour of the removal of his child's genitalia, Njuki explained that "women who are circumcised can remain without a man for a longer period of time".

Indeed FGM, according to AI's report, "impairs a woman's enjoyment [of sex]". By reducing sexual desire through making the act painful or removing pleasure, FGM is seen as a way of physically ensuring that a woman will be faithful to her partner.

Peter Kariuki, a 70-year-old elder from Embu, concurred. "Circumcised girls are less attracted to sex, which means there are less early pregnancies among our teenagers," he said.

According to him, by making it difficult - or impossible - for women to enjoy sex, FGM ensures that "a circumcised woman will choose a partner for love, not for sex".

Medical misinformation

Asked about the medical complications that might arise, and sometimes even be fatal to girls subjected to the practice, Kariuki shook his head.

"It does no harm, a circumcised woman can do everything a non-circumcised one can do," he said. "My daughters have been circumcised, and they have no problem," he said.

Njuki is convinced that the practice is medically sound. "It is easier for a circumcised woman to give birth - she can do it by herself and does not need medical assistance", he told IRIN in a candid display of his ignorance of the facts.

Medical research has found that the negative effects of FGM were most evident during childbirth. Scar tissue forms as a result of the cutting, reducing the elasticity of the vagina, which is crucial during childbirth.

Essential to adult initiation?

Another frequently used justification for FGM is that it is a key component of ceremonies initiating girls into adulthood.

In Embu, girls are taken aside to be both circumcised and educated about marital life. "Circumcised women will respect their husband more," claimed Njuki. The reason for this, he explained, is that "during the ceremony, they are taught how to care for their husband and family".

Although the educational aspect of the initiation ceremony is a separate part of the rituals that include cutting the girl's genitalia, for many protagonists the two aspects are indivisible. In the words of ex-president Kenyatta, "it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy."

When asked why the spiritual and educational sides of initiation could not be isolated from the physical cutting, Kariuki resorted to a seemingly unchallengeable argument: "It is our tradition - we must follow our culture."

Njuki and Karuiki's opinions, as those of millions of men and women on the issue of FGM, are shaped primarily by their unquestioning respect for tradition.

Traditional respectability and conformity

When asked why a father would worry about the future sexual behaviour of his pre-pubescent daughter, Njuki told IRIN: "A circumcised woman cannot get along with a non-circumcised one".

Uncircumcised girls are frequently ostracised for not having undergone the ritual considered necessary for them to become a woman. The social stigma of a family member scoffing at tradition might spread to the entire extended family, bringing 'dishonour' upon all.

Consequently, the issue of conformity is central to a family's or community's adherence to and maintenance of traditions such as FGM, even if individual members may wish to resist. Women and girls interviewed by IRIN in different African countries expressed high levels of concern about the social consequences of resisting tradition, despite their personal fear or dislike of FGM.

Such is the power of tradition and the fear of not being accepted by their peers that girls will prefer to be cut. The social conformity of being circumcised ensures acceptance by their social group and the possibility of marriage. It is this enduring strength of tradition in patriarchal societies that makes challenging FGM so difficult for activists.

Even Kenyatta, the founder of modern Kenya, deplored the "few detribalised Gikuyus [who] have thought fit to denounce the custom and marry uncircumcised girls".

However, growing urbanisation in Africa has been drawing people away from villages and families, often straining the links between individuals and their group's traditions. "The Kikuyus who moved to the cities do not all practice circumcision," Njuki told IRIN. "This is why my [Kikuyu] wife was not circumcised."

Even if peer pressure lessens away from the village, FGM is still considered an essential part of the ethnic group's cultural heritage, an indisputable point that often seals debates on FGM.

Asked whether his young daughter will undergo FGM, Njuki answered in a definitive tone: "It is our culture". Sensing this explanation may not have been sufficient, he added in a hushed tone "If others can do it, why not us?"