Rights activists decry Mungiki circumcision threat

Women's human rights activists in Kenya have urged the government to take action against recent threats by a controversial sect to forcibly circumcise women in central Kenya. On Wednesday, Kenyan newspapers reported that some members of the Mungiki sect, had issued an ultimatum to women aged between 13 and 65 in the Kiambaa and Kikuyu divisions, both in central Kenya, who had not undergone the ethnic Kikuyu traditional operation to submit to it.

According to the East African Standard newspaper, the sect distributed leaflets giving women up to 7 July - also known in Kenya as "Sabasaba" (seven-seven) - to undergo the ritual, threatening that failure to comply would result in the forcible infliction of the operation. Sabasaba is usually celebrated by opposition groups to mark the introduction of Kenyan multiparty politics on 7 July 1992.

Sylvia Nyagah, legal officer for the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), a nongovernmental organisation dedicated to upholding the rights of women and girls, told IRIN on Thursday that COVAW was "exploring ways" by which members of Mungiki could be arrested and charged with inciting the public to commit "an unlawful act". "As far as we are concerned, the Mungiki group is unlawful. Now they are inciting people to commit something that is against the law."

Responding to the threat by the Mungiki, Martha Koome, chairwoman of the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (known by its French acronym FIDA), urged the police to take action against the group, which claims to have a large following throughout the country.

Koome said the group was illegal and the police "should not condone its totally unacceptable" activities, the EAS on Thursday quoted her on Thursday as saying. "Any attempt to force any child, or woman for that mater, into circumcision is a serious offence which should be met with the full force of the law," she said.

Female circumcision, also termed as female genital mutilation (FGM), of minors has been outlawed in Kenya under the a new children's legislation, which was adopted by parliament and became law in December 2001. According to Nyagah, the new Children's Act prohibits anyone from carrying out FGM on a female under 18 years old.

The government has, meanwhile, ordered a crackdown on the authors and distributors of the leaflets in the two districts, according to the Standard. Patrick Kaunda Maikara, the district officer for Kikuyu area, said the police had been directed to raid all the places mentioned in as venues for the performance of the ritual, according to the paper.

The Mungiki sect, whose members wear dreadlocks, and which claims to promote "true African values", emerged in 1985, according to researchers. It promotes FGM and the traditional Kikuyu way of worship - praying facing Mt Kenya. It also believes in oathing and sacrifices, according to the Apologetics Research Resources on Religious Cults. [See: http://www.gospelcom.net]

Members of Mungiki also believe that, as genuine citizens disillusioned with perceived misrule, they must campaign for meaningful change in the running of the country's affairs.

Mungiki activities first came under the spotlight after its members reportedly stripped and beat up six women in a Nairobi suburb, allegedly for being indecently dressed. The incident drew outrage from the Kenyan public, which has since associated the sect with violence.

Subsequently, the Mungiki group was again in the news when it was held responsible for the killing of 20 people in clashes between the sect, whose membership is drawn from Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, and a vigilante group of ethnic Luos, in one of the city's slums.

The clashes, which took place on 3 March, ensued after the Luo vigilantes, calling themselves Taleban, had allegedly killed two Mungiki members the previous day. The Mungiki "national coordinator", Ibrahim Waruinge, was arrested soon after the killings, but later released without charge, according to local media reports.