Hundreds of girls between seven and 17 are seeking refuge in church compounds in western Kenya to avoid the ritual removal of their clitorises, a practice that remains common despite its illegality.
"Local authorities must ensure that these girls are not ostracised by the community and that their education is not disrupted," Andrew Timpson, a senior protection officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Kenya, told IRIN on 16 December.
Timpson made a field visit to Kuria East and Kuria West districts in early December to examine the condition and protection needs of 342 girls who had fled their homes to avoid undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
He said FGM/C was a major problem and that the girls who sought refuge at two churches were a small group. "It is possible that several hundred girls aged 15 to 16 may have been circumcised."
The girls left their homes in late November and sought sanctuary in two Swedish Maranatha Pentacostal mission stations – Gwikonge in Kuria West and Komotobo in Kuria East.
Timpson said the girls were predominantly from Masaba, Mabera and Kehancha divisions.
"The majority of the girls were brought to the missions by their parents who resisted concerted pressure brought by their communities, elders and grandparents to have their daughters circumcised," Timpson said. "However, there were at least 50 girls who were forced out of their homes or who had fled to avoid forced circumcisions."
Although substantial work has been done to sensitise girls and the community at large to the dangers of FGM, Timpson said, more needed to be done to ensure that those who encourage the practice face the law as it is contrary to Section 14 of the Children's Act.
|Anti-FGM activists: Hundreds of girls between seven and 17 have sought refuge in church compounds in Kuria to avoid the ritual|
Ahmed Hussein, the director of children's services under the Ministry of Gender, said the government and its partners had provided food to last the girls two weeks.
"The district advisory council is doing everything to ensure the girls are safe and consultations are ongoing to make sure that they can resume learning when schools open," Hussein said. "We will take the necessary measures to ensure their safe return home and to ensure their learning continues."
Timpson said the District Officers should ensure the girls are not beaten or circumcised when they return home "and the law should be used to deal with errant fathers and community leaders".
Relief aid for the girls has been provided by the government and agencies such as World Vision, the Maranatha Church and their Swedish partners. Other involved in efforts promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the Kuria district include Action Aid, ADRA and GTZ/MOH and World Vision.
According to a UNICEF-commissioned study, the practice is still prevalent in most of Kenya.
"Available evidence shows that female circumcision is still common, particularly in rural areas and among women who have received less education," according to the study, undertaken for UNICEF by Anne Khasakhala of the University of Nairobi's Population Studies and Research Institute.
One of the main reasons is the celebration and feasting that accompanies the ceremony and the bride wealth brought during the marriage negotiations, Khasakhala said.
FGM prevalence rates in the two Kuria districts range between 75 and 90 percent, according to the study, with the age at circumcision between 12 and 14.
"It appears that the community is still hiding under history, tradition and cultures that state that the girl is likely to become pregnant if she is not circumcised and that will bring shame to the family," the study indicated, with stigmatisation of girls who do not undergo FGM/C.
The study recommended that parents and the community be educated so that girls who are not cut are not discriminated against.