Following various seminars conducted by NGOs to mark the 8 March International Women's Day, 200 female circumcisers from Kenya's Rift Valley Province have abandoned their tools of trade and vowed to fight the deeply rooted custom.
Habil Oloo, a programme officer at the Kenya National Focal Point for FGM (female genital mutilation), which coordinates nationwide activities against the practice, said the development was the fruit of years of struggle by Kenyan NGOs against entrenched traditional attitudes among communities.
"We think a lot is happening on the ground," Oloo told IRIN. He added that although the problem of FGM had been more highlighted in Rift Valley Province because of increased activities against it there, FGM prevalence was in fact highest in the northeastern parts of Kenya. Here, an estimated 98 percent of girls between five and nine undergo the worst form of FGM, known as infibulation.
Oloo told IRIN that the practice was most widespread among the Cushitic Borana and Somali communities in the northeast, but little work had been done there to discourage the practice, due to the harsh security situation in the banditry prone region.
"There isn't much going on there. Only a few CBOs [Community Based Organisations] and international organisations have ventured into the area to persuade the people to stop the practice," he said.
While most communities in Kenya circumcised their girls to mark the passage from childhood to womanhood, those from the northeastern Kenya did it in the belief that it was a requirement of their Islamic faith, an argument refuted by many Muslim scholars, Oloo said.
The FGM practiced in northern Kenya is similar to that of neighbouring Somalia, where it is imposed on young girls still under the age of consent. "Even if they were allowed to make the decision for themselves, they are not sufficiently informed to do so," Una MacAskill, a Somalia-based humanitarian worker, told IRIN.
In communities where FGM is traditionally carried out on girls at puberty, anti-FGM crusaders have introduced an alternative rite of passage. The alternative involves taking the girls into seclusion to train to be future wives and mothers, leaving out the actual cut.
However, there are pockets of resistance to this alternative rite of passage in some areas where FGM is deeply rooted. In some of these areas, the age at which the girls are circumcised has been lowered to prevent resistance by the girls.
"This is a major challenge to us," Oloo said. "We are now working with the Ministry of Education to include messages against FGM in the school curriculum so the children can learn about their rights early enough," he said.
Another headache for Kenyan anti-FGM crusaders is the shift from "traditional" to "sanitised" methods, especially among the Kisii community in southern Kenya, anti-FGM activists said. Up to 90 percent of women in Kisii are being circumcised illegally by medical professionals.
Anne Nzomo, a programme officer with the women's umbrella group Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Kiswahili for development for women), said many parents in Kisii had become "sensitised" to the dangers of traditional methods of FGM. But instead of abandoning the practice, they were now paying large sums of money to medical professionals to perform the rite on their daughters.
"Now they go to hospitals to do it," Nzomo told IRIN on Wednesday. "But whether practised using medical methods or not, the fact is that this is an illegal practice," she said.
Nzomo added that among the Samburu of western Kenya, the community still insisted on drawing blood by piercing the girls' genitals as a symbolic alternative to the actual cutting.
FGM is outlawed in Kenya under the Children's Act, which was enacted in 2002. But the provisions of the Act are unclear as to the kind of punishment that could be meted out to offenders, leaving the sentencing at the discretion of magistrates, who have tended to issue only light sentences, according to Nzomo.
"The Children's Bill [as the Act is popularly known in Kenya] is very clear on FGM. But this is an area where we also need clear maximum and minimum sentences for offenders," she said.
Widely practised in most African countries, FGM is rooted in discrimination against women, and violates the basic rights of the child, feminists say. Apart from being responsible for various reproductive health problems among women, FGM also contributes to high rates of school dropouts among girls and early marriages.