A few weeks ago, I met the outstanding Jaha Dukereh, a young Gambian activist who is changing minds and laws as she campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC), which is prevalent in Gambia, many parts of Africa, some parts of Asia and in the Middle East.
Still only in her twenties, Jaha has not only accomplished some major feats, she has also been celebrated and honoured, and is the subject of a fascinating documentary called “Jaha’s Promise.”
She was mutilated as a baby, then sent off at 15 to marry a Gambian man in New York in an arranged marriage.
Consummating the marriage meant more cutting which increased trauma which led to depression and anxiety. Jaha eventually escaped from her brutal husband. She later re-married, but this time to a more understanding man and they have two children.
Jaha started campaigning against FGM as a young mother, joining with other African migrant women in the Atlanta area in an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, providing safe spaces to question the practice in societies that do not encourage questioning, dissent or challenge. FGM is a huge problem in many of our cultures.
Despite decades of education, sensitisation and even criminalisation, FGM/C refuses to go away. In fact in many Moslem communities, FGM/C is touted as an “Islamic” act, though there is nothing in the Koran that allows it.
And in non-Islamic communities, it is sold as one of the main ways to retain affiliation and respect in communities that are patriarchal and regard women as second class citizens.
Though it is sometimes marketed as the traditional turning point from childhood to womanhood, FGM/C is a tool for men to assert their control over women and ensure that they control their sexuality and desires.
Even in those cultures that allowed married women to have liaisons with other men — such as Maasai and Gikuyu where there was an expectation that a woman have at least one child from a man other than her husband to diversify the genetic pool — this was done with the permission of, and at the discretion of, men.
As Jaha says, “We live in a society wherein women are made to believe that we have to bow down to your man.
Men tell women that we want our daughters cut, and they cut them. My aunt, my sisters told me: this is how we live. I should never have been taught to accept those kinds of things.”
FGM/C is not only incredibly painful; its negative impact lasts forever. In Jaha’s words, “It’s just something that women don’t talk about. You know they never talked to me about the pain. They don’t tell you that sex is going to hurt forever. It is not a conversation that we have. We have a culture of silence.”
It is time for us in Africa and Kenya, to confront FGM/C and it is good that there is a court hearing that could be a turning point. It is often defended as “our culture” but all cultures change and morph with growing times and circumstances. In fact, it is ironic that those who have adopted foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam, somehow do not see the contradiction in defending this part of our cultures that is harmful and degrading.
In Kenya, FGM/C is practiced among the Kisii, Kuria, Maasai, Pokot, Sabaot, Marakwet, Meru, Gikuyu, Borana, Gabra, Rendille and Somali communities. We clearly need to do something about this to end it. While making FGM/C illegal makes sense, I am not so sure about criminalising parents who force their children to undergo FGM/C. For that then leaves young traumatised girls to fend for themselves when their parents are in jail. Perhaps targeting the actual cutter would be more useful, though this also could lead to people going underground and making the entire operation even more dangerous.
Using force and criminal law to deal with culture-based problems is often counter-productive. It is like criminalising drug-addiction when what is needed is a solution in health care, which is what the US has done with crack cocaine — mostly used by blacks — and led to the world’s largest prison population. (Incidentally, meth and opioid addiction — mostly used by whites — are being treated as health rather than criminal law issues).
It is instructive that defending FGC was one of the reasons that led to Jomo Kenyatta’s fame in the 1930s.
And yet, there may be lessons to learn from the Gikuyu community where FGM/C has decreased substantially except for pockets of the Gikuyu diaspora in the Rift Valley and Nyahururu.
The education of girls, the expansion of cash-crops and small scale agriculture meant that FGM/C died a natural death as the girls could not be spared the time off to undergo FGM/C.
What is clear is that we need a lot of sensitisation, education and elevation of the status of women if we are to end this practice.