Girls in Embu County find ways of evading the cut

Primary school pupils in Embu County awaiting to participate in a walk against FGM, which is being done secretly despite major  campaigns against the vice. [Picture: Robert Nyagah]
Primary school pupils in Embu County awaiting to participate in a walk against FGM, which is being done secretly despite major campaigns against the vice. [Picture: Robert Nyagah]

Hundreds of girls in Embu County spend the climax of the Christmas and New Year festive season away from home to escape impending forced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Some are sneaked away by well-wishers under the guise of invitation to Christmas celebrations while others voluntarily move to stay with relatives and friendly families after learning that they are targeted for the cut.

In the larger Mt Kenya region under which Embu County falls, the long December holidays is the most favoured season for “circumcision ceremonies” for boys and girls majority of them Standard Eight graduates.

While the circumcision of boys, marked by the cutting of the foreskin is traditionally and medically accepted first as means to adulthood for the boys, and second as a precaution against venereal infections including HIV, the surgery on girls though looked upon as an initiation into, remains illegal in Kenya due to social and health issues associated with the practice.

A huge number of deeply cultural and traditional clans or families in Embu and Mbeere have continued to administer Female Genital Mutilation on innocent and mostly underage girls.

The cut which is done in secret is usually performed by elderly women and involves the cutting of the clitoris, mostly by use of poorly and unhygienic crude blades made by local blacksmiths from discarded thin iron ore pieces.

Worse, some of the blades are normally rusty and are at times repeatedly reused for several initiates during the same occasion without being sterilized. This could easily expose the girls to various infections the worst being the HIV virus.

According to a research by Action Aid Kenya, across Embu County only a handful of girls voluntarily present themselves the cut.

These are girls from clans and families which have for ages predominantly practiced the genital mutilation and are so indoctrinated to a point that those who resist are ostracized. They are then publicly exposed to taunts as being “immature, cowards, dirty and unqualified or unsuitable for sex and marriage.

The terms used for the uncircumcised “kirigu” in Mt Kenya region is locally deeply so derogatory and stigmatizing that other descriptions for the same condemn the girls as unworthy of people sharing close moments with.

Culturally among such clans, it’s argued that the clitoris emits a foul smell when it’s not cut hence the reason why FGM is propagated.

Jane Wambeti, not her real name completed her primary education in 2015 and immediately she completed her Kenya Certificate of Primary School Education (KCPE), she moved from her home in Siakago to stay with friends at Itabua area in the outskirts of Embu town.

However, Wambeti is not alone. Homesteads closer to urban areas in Embu, Runyenjes, Manyatta and Kithimu report a notable increase in the number of visiting teenage girls who stay with peers and patronise church organized forums.

“In some churches, the forums included large number of girls who were taken through counselling and guidance by social workers, church elders and educationists,” says James Nyaga, an elder at the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK).

Nyaga notes that some of forums play a major role in keeping away a huge number of girls from FGM ceremonies.

Cautious parents and guardians are employing methods such as relocating the girls targeted for FGM to protect them. This indicates clear low penetration of Adolescent and Youth Sexual Reproductive Health Education among other social guideline policies across the country.

In fact according to the Adolescent and Youth Sexual Reproductive Health policy, key gaps have been identified.

While modern issues are captured in many campaigns, social and cultural issues seem widely ignored yet these are widespread especially in rural parts of Kenya like Embu where the girls continue to become highly vulnerable.

The Adolescent and Youth Sexual Reproductive Health policy indicates that in an area such as peer education which is poorly spread in Embu rural areas, educators normally disseminate information about health but have no means of selected health services.

Utilization of edutainment in most parts of Embu County is low, yet edutainment which is the use of entertainment activities to attract youth to a venue and then pass health promotion or disease prevention messages to them by use of folk media/drama, music/dance, puppetry, video clips, and fashion and beauty pageants among others remains important.

Perhaps the information communication and technology (ICT) including social media need expansion in the County as a means to creating awareness against social evils including FGM.

The relatively new approach of engaging youth that has been adopted by youth serving organizations remains low with a mere two development partners presently supporting the approach nationwide.

Yet the government acknowledges that social media has become popular with youth especially in urban and peri-urban areas because they are an audience looking for and ready for information.

In Embu County at least two organizations are starting to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter as well as short message service (SMS) to provide information on sexual and reproductive health rights.

However unlike the previously mentioned approaches, these emerging channels of communication have not been rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. A number of research projects are ongoing to evaluate the effectiveness of these approaches in providing sexual and reproductive health information and facilitating behaviour change among youth.


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