Kenya: Men help turn tide against female genital mutilation (IPS and UN News Centre)

| March 4, 2013

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Julius Lekupe says that women are treated like property in his community. Mr. Lekupe lives in northern Kenya. He says, “We circumcise [girls] and marry them off – some as young as 10 years old.” But he refuses to be part of this tradition. Mr. Lekupe is one of the growing number of men helping to reduce the rates of female genital mutilation in Africa.

Female genital mutilation is sometimes called female circumcision or female genital cutting. It is commonly referred to as FGM. It refers to a number of practices which involve cutting away part or all of a girl’s external genital organs. In some cultures, it can be considered a rite of passage or prerequisite to marriage. According to UN agencies, it has no health benefits, causes severe pain and has a number of immediate and long-term health consequences.

A new UN study notes that three million girls are at risk of FGM each year. However, there has been a decline in this harmful, traditional practice. The decline has been particularly sharp in Kenya. Kenyan women are now three times more likely to have been cut than Kenyan girls.

Mr. Lekupe’s eldest daughter is among the fortunate ones who were spared. Mr. Lekupe says, “She begged me to support and protect her. It was a tough decision.” To protect his 16-year-old daughter, he sent her to the capital city of Nairobi to live with a friend.

Mr. Lekupe is among the growing number of men from ethnic groups that practice FGM who have begun to speak out against the practice. According to a study by the UN Population Fund, men are increasingly active in the cultural shift away from FGM. The organization notes that over two dozen male Muslim leaders made public declarations to fight FGM in 2011.

In the Kapenguria community of Kenya’s Rift Valley, the local council of elders has joined the growing chorus of men speaking out against FGM. The elders made a public declaration to abandon the practice in 2011.

Philipo Lotimari is a community leader in Kapenguria. He says the declaration shifted attitudes within the town. He says it sent “a collective message that it is okay to marry a girl who isn’t circumcised.” None of his sisters were subjected to FGM.

The new UN study shows that FGM is now less prevalent across Africa. Over the last five years, nearly 10,000 communities in 15 countries have renounced the practice.

Anthony Lake is the executive director of UNICEF. He says this progress shows it is possible to end FGM. Mr. Lake adds, “We can and must end it to help millions of girls and women lead healthier lives.”