KENYA: It is the high season for circumcision as the new law against FGM fails to bite

By PETER MWAURA Posted Friday, December 16 2011 at 20:00

In most communities in Kenya, this is the high season for circumcision for both boys and girls.

The law, however, prohibits female circumcision and lays down harsh punishment for offenders. But that has not stopped communities from circumcising their girls.

The reason is very simple: Laws that do not fit into the social system are like square pegs in round holes, and most of the time they are disobeyed, ignored or conveniently forgotten.

The law against female circumcision, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, is just such law, as illustrated by a story published in the Daily Nation of December 8.

The story carried the headline “Villagers ignore the law and go on girl circumcision frenzy”.

The story reported that Kuria residents circumcised hundreds of girls in defiance of the law and demanded the release of two women circumcisers arrested by the police.

The story tells how villagers thronged footpaths “in wild celebration, armed with home-made guns, machetes, spears, knives, clubs and other weapons that would ordinarily have their wielders jailed” as the girls were circumcised.

A local ward councillor defends the practice, saying the constitution protects cultural practices.

“The government allowed us to circumcise the men,” he says, “which we did, but then we later wondered: now that we have taken men through the initiation, must we not create a pool of women from where they can marry?”

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, which came into force on October 4, is the first law in Kenya to borrow the vocabulary, “female genital mutilation” or FGM, coined by Western feminists. As words go, FGM is clever propaganda.

Propaganda aside, laws normally follow societal norms and public opinion. Laws brought in as a form of social engineering rarely succeed although there are many notable exceptions.

Tunisia laws liberating women are some of such exceptions. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy in 1956, the same year the country gained independence from France.

This was followed by rights for women and compulsory free education for all. Today, Tunisia is one of the most advanced in the Arab world.

Female circumcision is difficult to eradicate in most Kenyan communities. Female circumcision practitioners argue that they do not practice FGM; they just make a tiny incision to make a girl a woman, eligible for marriage and respectability.

And FGM has been tolerated for years. Parliament passed the first law against the practice in 2001. The Children Act, however, does not use the term FGM and devotes only one section of its 199 sections to circumcision.

The section forbids any person from circumcising a female child. But the law defines a child as anybody below the age of 18. So one could lawfully circumcise a female so long as she was 18 or above.

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act is more comprehensive and drastic. It prohibits circumcision for all females regardless of age and prescribes much harsher punishment.

The punishment for the offence is imprisonment for a term of not less than three years, or a fine of not less than Sh200,000, or both.

And if the victim dies, say through excessive bleeding, the offender can be jailed for life. Under the Children Act the punishment is imprisonment not exceeding one year, or a fine not exceeding Sh50,000 or both.

The new law has also added a new offence: If a person uses derogatory or abusive language to ridicule, embarrass or otherwise harm a woman for being uncircumcised, or a man for marrying or otherwise supporting an uncircumcised woman, he or she is liable to be imprisoned for not less than six months, or fined not less than Sh50,000, or both.

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act clearly fits into the social system like a square peg in a round hole. Of course, one can force it in by hammering it.

That’s apparently what the authorities are trying to do. It won’t work until adequate public awareness of the harmful effects of FGM is created.

SOURCE: Daily Nation

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