Kenya Leads Decline in Female Genital Mutilation, but Victims are Younger, Mutilation More Extreme
A new report from UNICEF identifies Kenya among the top two countries, along with Central African Republic, in reducing the prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). While Kenya is a leader, the data also reveals that remaining victims are younger, more severely brutalized and isolated to a few ethnic communities in rural areas.
According to the study, the practice is not only a human rights violation but also poses serious health risks to the girls. Immediate complications include bleeding, delayed or incomplete healing, and infections. Long-term consequences may include damage to adjacent organs, sterility, recurring urinary tract infections, formation of cysts, birth complications and even death.
The data from the Kenya Demographic Health Survey conducted in 2008-2009 reveals that 26% of Kenyan women and girls have undergone FGM, making it a moderately low prevalence country with a 10% drop in prevalence over 10 years, controlling for immigration. Laws banning FGM were passed in Kenya in 2001 and renewed in 2011 but data shows a steady decline over three generations.
The practice is fast declining, with teen girls four times less likely to be cut than women in their late forties. The procedure may be getting safer in Kenya, one of the top three countries where health personnel, who lower the risks of complications, perform the procedure. This finding indicates that where the social practice is deeply ingrained in some societies, parents seek out ways to make it safer, even though it is illegal for Kenyan medical personnel to perform the procedure on girls.
Kenya rounds out the top 10 countries where women most strongly believe the practice should end with only 10% support among all women ages 15 to 49 and over half of Kenyan women who have undergone FGM see no benefit for a girl. This decline in support may be due to interactions of cut girls and women with people who do not practice FGM and do not experience any negative consequences. More than half of women aged 15 to 49 years who have undergone FGM are willing to abandon the practice, suggesting that social attitude change has taken place.
Despite negative public opinion, the practice of FGM still remains strong among hard-to-reach populations in Kenya: poor, uneducated rural women steeped in ethnic social practices. The poorest Kenyan women are seven times likely to have undergone FGM as the richest women. The majority of women who have undergone the procedure are also uneducated.
FGM has declined substantially in some ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, whereas in others, such as the Kisii and Somali, it remains nearly universal. Regions with high prevalence often border countries where the practice is more extreme and are ethnically driven.
Where the practice remains ingrained, the age of cutting is declining. Girls increasingly undergo the procedure at a younger age, with nearly half of the youngest women interviewed being cut before the age of nine, whereas fewer than one in five of women in their late forties were cut at such a young age. The Somali and Kisii communities cut girls in the youngest age range. The younger age may be to reduce public scrutiny or take advantage of younger girls who are less able to resist.
Despite a global trend showing stability in the type of FGM performed across generations, and that where change has occurred, the most common trend is towards less severe cutting, Kenya is an anomaly. More and more girls in Kenya suffer the most severe form of FGM and have their vaginas sewn closed. Through this procedure the labia are sewn together to create a type of seal, with or without excision of the clitoris, results in near complete covering of the urethra and the vaginal orifice, which must be reopened for sexual intercourse and childbirth. This procedure is most common in the Somali community.