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Maasai girls still suffer female genital mutilation in Kenya

In Maasai society, cutting takes place at school age
In Maasai society, cutting takes place at school age

The UN’s child agency estimates that over the next ten years 30 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) across the world.

The practice of cutting girls is still widespread in 30 countries, mostly in Africa. In places such as Somalia, Guinea and Egypt, more than 90% of girls are subjected to FGM. Even in countries where it’s less common, such as Tanzania and Kenya, FGM remains entrenched in certain cultures and communities.

As the issue becomes more prominent in the UK, an article in the Guardian looks at northern Kenya, where more than two-thirds of Maasai girls are subjected to FGM today, normally in their early teenage years and as a precursor to marriage.

Kenya introduced a law banning FGM in 2001 and is one of the few countries in Africa to have taken steps to enforce this law. In 2011, a second set of legislation made it illegal to promote or facilitate the practice. And recently, the country appointed an anti-FGM advocate and former MP to the government’s anti-FGM Board, which was set up to provide greater protection to girls at risk of becoming victims of the illegal practice.

Slow to change

However, in Maasai regions to the north, it’s hard to change age-old practices, which are seen as part of the community’s culture and heritage. As the Guardian’s article highlights, women are considered unfit for marriage unless they are cut and the dowry paid for girls is an important source of income for many families. A typical ‘bride price’ would be a payment in livestock of perhaps as many as 30 cows. As one local commentator put it “daughters are seen as cattle to be sold”.

A number of local groups and organisations provide help to girls who flee their homes to escape being cut or married at a young age. In its report, ‘Protecting the Girl Child’, Equality Now highlights the work of rescue centres run by the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI). These centres take in girls like Evelyn, whose family wanted her to undergo FGM at 14. Having fled, Evelyn returned when her mother promised not to try to marry her off. However, her mother reneged on this promise and Evelyn had to seek refuge at a TNI centre once again. This time, the TNI reported the case to the police who prosecuted Evelyn’s mother under the Children’s Act 2001. This led to a two years community service sentence. Now reconciled with her relatives, Evelyn still attends school.

No wives, just schoolgirls

Another place of refuge is the Cana girl’s rescue centre, set up as a shelter in 2002. Today, it is home to 50 girls who have fled FGM or forced marriages. It’s not unknown for some families to try to remove their daughters forcibly. The head woman at the centre recounts to the Guardian reporter how she once faced a group of armed male relatives demanding one of the girls be handed over for marriage. However, she stood her ground and told them there aren’t “any wives here, just schoolgirls”.

SOS Children has worked in Africa for over forty years. Kenya was one of the very first countries we came to. Here, we have been providing a new family for children who have lost their own since 1975. Find out more about the problems faced by children across the country, and what we are doing to help.