For many years, efforts by human rights groups fighting female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM), were frustrated by cultural taboos and lack of political commitment. Now, however, those efforts are paying off and have resulted in increased levels of public awareness.
But with this, a new problem has emerged. Media reports revealed last week that hundreds of primary schoolgirls were running away from home in the country's vast Rift Valley Province and "holing up" in churches to avert forcible FGM.
NGOs say the numbers of girls now running away are overwhelming them, and they can no longer accommodate them without humanitarian supplies. They complain that they have received no response from the government on how to deal with the crisis.
According to Anne Gathumbi, who works for the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), the numbers of girls running away and seeking shelter are "getting out of hand". "There is no official communication from the government so far. We feel this is a lost opportunity on the part of the government to get involved and offer a sustainable solution," Gathumbi told IRIN. "It is humanitarian crisis. Their fears are very real. They need shelter. Someone has to take care of them. It is not right for their parents to just comfortably sit at home," she added.
Kenyan authorities, however, said they were not in an immediate position to respond. Anna Mbwere, the commissioner of social services, told IRIN that she needed time to establish the facts about the issues raised by the NGOs, and would forward them to the appropriate authorities. "We just can't respond to reports over the media. I'll find out what is happening and, depending on what information is there, then we will be in a position to comment," she told IRIN.
FGM was formally banned by the Children's Act, passed by parliament in 2001, but it is still widely practised in secret by a number of communities, particularly in Rift Valley Province, but also in the central, eastern and the northeastern parts of the country.
Communities still practising it claim that it is an important traditional cultural rite of passage, which prepares girls for their future roles as wives and mothers. Circumcised girls are showered with gifts and praises as part of an incentive to encourage others also to undergo the rite. Moreover, bride price, a deeply entrenched practice in many communities, is higher for circumcised brides.
Up to 53 percent of Kenyan women are said to have undergone FGM. In some districts, the proportion of girls circumcised, usually between the ages of eight and 14, can be as high as 95 percent.
According to the Kenyan umbrella women's group, Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Kiswahili for women in development), which is involved in anti-FGM campaigns, the Rift Valley region has the highest incidence of FGM in the country.
The most common form of FGM in Kenya, clitoridectomy, involves the excision of part or the whole of the clitoris, according to local experts. However, the most harmful form of FGM, infibulation, or excision of the labia minorae and majorae as well as the clitoris, is practised in the northeast.
In some parts, such as Meru, in the east and Kisii in the south, where FGM has been even been "medicalised" and is illegally performed in hospitals, civic education targets hospital matrons and nurses to discourage it. "It is not that some of them don't know, but they make cash out of it," Gathumbi said.
In the course of circumcision ceremonies, girls are first taken into seclusion for up to two weeks, during which they are taught about their future responsibilities as married women, before undergoing the operation. A colourful ceremony follows, in which the community celebrates with feasts and dancing.
Human rights activists opposed to the practice argue that the cut adversely affects the reproductive aspects of the lives of girls and women. Severe forms of FGM, in particular, cause complications during childbirth.
The increasing body of opinion against FGM has been attributed largely to the application of the Children's Act, as well as to public education.
One of the most successful education programmes aimed at eradicating FGM in Kenya involves an "alternative rite of passage", in which girls are taken through all the ceremonies attending FGM, but without undergoing the actual cut.
The programme's success is credited to years of research undertaken by Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the US-based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), which ended in 1996 in a culturally acceptable substitute for FGM. The girls also receive reproductive health training and instruction on social and cultural norms, after which they "graduate" in a big ceremony.
Samson Radeny, PATH's senior programme officer in Kenya, told IRIN that 5,500 girls had participated in this alternative rite under his programme by December last year. "We are at last getting the message across. Initially it was so difficult. They are now paying attention," Radeny said. "What we have seen in the last decade is a progression of protectiveness of this culture to the point where people are beginning to talk to us," he added.
An impressive number of former circumcisers are now condemning FGM and engaging in community education against the practice, according to PATH. Moreover, girls have started writing to NGOs, seeking assistance against family pressure to undergo the operation.
The use of slang among young men also reveals a change in attitude, says PATH: an uncircumcised girl has come to be referred to as a manyanga [Kiswahili for young, new], while a circumcised one is described as mitumba [second-hand, or used]. Moreover, for the first time in churches, clergymen have taken to talking about FGM during baptisms of girls, according to PATH.
A high-profile case in which two girls took their father to court to avert forcible circumcision further brought the issue of FGM into sharp focus. The sisters won the case, which was the first of its kind in the country.
Radeny, however, admitted that anti-FGM efforts were still facing considerable resistance in some areas, such as in Kisii District. "The history of fighting FGM started early in Kisii, but we are still having a bit of a problem there. A lot of things are still out of question there," he told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions