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From root@sn.wn.apc.org Tue Jan 24 12:51 EST 1995
Date: Tue, 24 Jan 95 18:44 EET
Originator: misa-news@wn.apc.org
From: Inter Press Service Harare <ipshre@gn.apc.org>
To: Multiple recipients of list <misa-news@wn.apc.org>
Subject: Message from Ipshre

Dilemna Of Female Circumcision

ByCharles Wachira, IPS, 24 January 1995

NAIROBI, Jan 24 (IPS) - Mary Nyamboki ran away from home at the age of 15 because her mother refused to allow her to be circumcised.

"All my friends were getting circumcised. I felt that if I was left out I would become the laughing stock. So I ran away from home and went to stay with grand mum who gave me the greenlight to become a woman," recounts Nyamboki.

Today, the 35 year-old mother takes a different view of female genital mutilation. She flares when asked if she would allow her daughter to undergo the traditional operation.

"Don't ask me such a question. If you would allow your daughter don't think I would," she says.

Female circumcision is customary among the majority of Kenya's ethnic communities, and is still widespread in the rural areas.

Only the western-based Luo and the Turkana in the north have not adopted the practice, out of the country's 43 tribes

An umbrella women's rights organisation, 'maendeleo ya wanawake', has however taken the brave step of announcing that it intends to see the eradication of genital mutilation.

It fully appreciates that it is not going to be an easy task.

A random survey carried out by the organisation in Nyamboki's home district of Kisii, 300 kms west of here, showed 98 percent of women interviewed in the villages had undergone the ritual.

Moreover, a frank 47-page report on harmful traditional practices by 'maedeleo ya wanawake' provides heavy calibre am munition to the conservatives who want to see circumcision preserved.

It points out that, "...65 percent of the women interviewed wanted circumcision to continue citing reasons like 'it is a good tradition' and 'a sign of maturity' making it clear that changes may be extremely difficult to bring about."

According to Leah Muuya, the group's project coordinator: "We are under no illusion that the job to be done is aweso me, but somebody has to do it. We are aware the cultural barriers of our people could be a problem but we must find a so lution."

There are three forms of female genital mutilation practiced in Kenya:

'Sunna' involves the removal of the hood of the clitoris and is found predominately among the Kisiis.

The excision method cuts away the hood and glands of the clitoris and adjacent parts of the labia minora and is commo n in the eastern district of Meru.

Infibulation is the severest operation of all, where the entire clitoris, and the labia minora is removed and the ope ning sewn to allow a tiny passage for the passing of urine and menstrual blood. It is used by the Samburu and ethnic Som alis.

Circumcision is usually performed during the school holidays by traditional birth attendants on girls that are around 14-years-old.

When Christian missionaries first arrived in Kenya in the early 19th century, they attempted to do away with the ritu als, but were defeated by the power of its cultural significance.

"We are aware culture is important. For culture means the person. Our entry point therefore will be the people. Fema le circumcision is not a standing issue. It has to do with what happened and what has happened," notes Muuya.

According to communities which uphold the tradition, the rite represents a passage to adulthood and enhances tribal a nd social cohesion.

"Circumcised girls receive important recognition among peers and within the community. It also increases marriage op portunities for girls and assists in ensuring a favourable economic situation for the family," says Dr. Agina Alour of the University of Nairobi's anthropology department.

Banning the custom is "unpromising in the light of socio- cultural attachment of the practice," she believes.

However, apart from the issue of women's rights, there are health grounds on which a case could be built for legislat ion.

The crudely performed operation with unsterilised blades can kill. There is also the risk of infection and excessive bleeding, complications during labour and delivery, reduction of sexual desire and sometimes an accompanying fear of sex ual intercourse.

Unlike their rural sisters, there is much stronger opposition among better-educated women in Nairobi to circumcision.

"The issue does not even arise. Its a foreign thing at this time and age. Women today cannot succumb to rituals that suppress their womanhood," says Jennifer Mwikabi, an advocate with a city firm.

"In a male dominated society, female circumcision is one way of subjugating women," she adds. (end/ips/cw/oa/94)