Priscilla Bosibori, now 17, was 14 when an aunt fetched her from her school in Kisii, western Kenya, on the pretext of taking her to an important family function. Once they had left the school grounds, her aunt said her family had found a way of protecting her from HIV.
Bosibori arrived home to a welcome of songs and dances by female members of her family before being placed in a room with other girls her age.
"Immediately I knew that I was about to be circumcised and I was shocked that even my mother, who had all along resisted my father's attempts to have me cut, was convincing me that this would be the best way to protect myself from getting infected with HIV," she told IRIN/PlusNews.
Proponents of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in Kisii, where the practice is widespread, claim that the removal of part of the clitoris reduces a woman's sexual desire and the likelihood that she will have several sexual partners, thus reducing her chances of contracting the virus.
"When you are cut as a woman, you do not become promiscuous and it means you cannot get infected by HIV; even our men want circumcised girls who will not turn out to be prostitutes," said Grace Kemunto, a traditional circumciser.
According to local residents, a campaign by the government and NGOs to end the practice has made people like Kemunto even more aggressive in their efforts to keep FGM/C alive. The practice goes against Ministry of Health policy and also contravenes the Kenya Children's Act of 2001, which outlaws FGM/C of girls under the age of 18.
"I do not know where this idea of female genital mutilation being a remedy to HIV infection originated, but it is a strong belief here," said Jacqueline Mogaka, an anti-FGM/C campaigner in the area. "Young girls are now even voluntarily turning up for the cut because of this belief ... the proponents of this practice will die fighting."
An estimated 97 percent of girls in Kisii undergo circumcision, usually when they are teenagers but sometimes while still prepubescent.
A false premise
Anti-FGM/C campaigners in the region say the argument used by people like Kemunto is extremely harmful, particularly since it assumes that girls and women are in control of their sex lives, which is not true of most women in Kisii.
|When you are cut as a woman, you do not become promiscuous and it means you cannot get infected by HIV|
According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2003, in the rural areas of Nyanza Province, where Kisii is located, an estimated nine percent of girls are married by the age of 15, while 53 percent are married by the age of 19.
Many of these girls and young women marry older men and have little say in the marriage. Women in Nyanza are also much more likely to report physical and sexual violence than those in other parts of Kenya.
The notion that FGM/C reduces sexual desire has been challenged by researchers, who found that girls who undergo the practice do not show any significant difference in sexual desire compared to those who are uncircumcised.
Dorothy Onyancha is convinced that her 12-year-old daughter contracted HIV when she was secretly taken by her father to a traditional circumciser. "The father lied to her that if she is cut she will be free from HIV," she said.
"She is now HIV-positive and I know she got it from the practice because she confided to me that the woman who cut them used one knife to circumcise 15 of them," Onyancha said. "Now I take care of her alone, yet the father does not even care ... he cares more about his pride of having a circumcised daughter." One of the girls later died from excessive bleeding.
FGM/C increases a woman's risk of HIV primarily through the use of a single blade to cut several girls during traditional circumcision. There is also an increased risk of haemorrhage, leading to a greater likelihood of blood transfusions becoming necessary during circumcision, at childbirth, or as a result of vaginal tearing during sexual intercourse, with an even higher risk in areas where a safe blood supply cannot be guaranteed.
"How can one claim to be reducing HIV by practicing female genital mutilation when we know one knife can be used to circumcise up to 10 girls or even more?" asked Dr Erick Abunga, the Kisii District medical officer of health.
|More on FGM|
|Razor's Edge - the controversy of Female Genital Mutilation|
|Can microcredit turn FGM cutters to new trades?|
|FGM among the Pokot heightens HIV risk|
Prohibited but still widespread
Kisii District Commissioner Benjamin Njoroge said the practice was difficult to eradicate because families now did it secretly for fear of legal repercussions, and those who dared to talk about it were silenced by the community.
The fight against FGM/C in Kisii had made some progress by using the argument that traditional methods increased the risk of HIV, but lately nurses and midwives had been carrying out circumcisions.
Anti-FGM/C campaigners said this was common, even though it was illegal, and was now holding back the fight against FGM/C because the practice was no longer associated with a fear of HIV.
Nyanza province has the highest level of HIV in the country - 15.3 percent - compared to a national average of 7.4 percent.