At her grandmother's home in the western Kenyan village of Nyamataro, 14-year-old Ruth* lies on a mat surrounded by visitors, all congratulating her on becoming a woman; the previous week, Ruth was one of 10 girls to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
"When people see me and I smile at them, they think I like what I went through... [but] I wish I could run away," she told IRIN. "My grandmother said I must be cut so I can be a good girl in future.
"I was afraid to go, but they forced me and now I am feeling a lot of pain. I can't go to school until I heal," she added.
Ruth's father says the pain is worth the respect she will earn from the community as a circumcised woman.
"As a man, you want to bring up your child in the way of your people and for us, being circumcised is one of them," he said. "She will be a good woman to her husband in future. When people say we should stop what we have done all along, I just laugh."
The Children's Act (2001) criminalizes the subjection of children to FGM/C; people violating the law are subject to prison sentences. However, the 2008/2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey reported an FGM/C prevalence of 96 percent among Ruth's Kisii ethnic community; the Kisii practise a form of FGM/C known as excision, where part of the clitoris is removed.
Overall, the 2008/2009 report logged a national drop in FGM/C prevalence to 27 percent from 38 percent in 1998 and 32 percent in 2003, but officials say the law's main impact has been to drive the practice underground.
"With the implementation of laws such as the Children's Act, those who do this practice have resorted to secretive ways of doing it," said Pamela Mbuvi, district children's officer for Kisii District. "So when you see surveys pointing to a decline, it might mean people are abandoning the custom, but it could also mean they now do it secretly and report it less lest the law catches up with them.
"We have caught a few people doing it and at least five have been jailed that I know of, but the secrecy that the perpetrators use makes it hard to effectively use the law to end the practice."
A second piece of legislation, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Bill (2010), seeks to close loopholes in current legislation; the new law, for instance, would remove the requirement for the police to obtain a warrant to enter premises where they suspect FGM/C is being carried out.
"Female genital mutilation puts those who undergo it through a lot of physical and psychological pain and they need support and that support must come from the government," said Lina Jebii Kilimo, FGM/C activist and Kenyan Member of Parliament. "That is why the law seeks to make it plain that the government must provide support to victims."
However, she noted that laws alone were not sufficient to end the practice of FGM/C.
Changing the community
"Laws targeting specifically FGM are an important step in ending the practice but the law alone cannot do it because it is a traditional practice and it is deeply rooted; remember, people who strongly believe in culture are at times ready to die for it," Kilimo said. "My suggestion is, let the government and anybody working for children's rights carry out education and awareness among the community to let them know the dangers [of FGM/C]. Those campaigns have been carried out, but they must be continuous."
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Joyce Nyangito, 78, cannot remember how many girls she has cut in her 38-year career. She says she will keep doing it as long as there is a demand.
"My work is to cut these girls and to make them moral women when they get married," she said. "I can’t stop unless parents stop bringing their girls to me, which I know they won't do, so I will stop it when I die."
Women in the Kisii community who disagree with the practice feel powerless to protect their daughters. Rispa Moseti, a 41-year-old mother of six, says if she had the power, she would have prevented her two daughters from going through FGM/C.
"They were cut against my will and at times they ask me why I allowed it; it is a bad thing because it puts a young child through pain for no reason," she said. "Those who encourage it say it preserves virginity and reduces immorality - it is a lie. I cannot tell any woman to allow her child to go through this kind of thing."
The few who have dared to defy tradition have paid a heavy price. Violet Masogo runs a rescue centre that provides protection to girls who have run way from home to escape FGM/C, but she has had to move the centre from Kisii to Kisumu city, farther west, after two attacks by men who claimed she was "spoiling" their daughters.
"I underwent female circumcision and I know the pain. Many girls wouldn't want to go through it and that is why I thought of starting a centre where these girls could get some refuge," she said. "It is hard because those who still believe in the practice see you as a spoiler."
*not her real name
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
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