United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Kenya officials, led by Country Representative Dr. Ademola Olajide, made a recent visit to Taita Taveta alongside county and national government officials led by the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of Public Service and Gender (MoPSYG) Rachel Shebesh. The visit included female genital mutilation (FGM) sensitization and distribution of much needed dignity kits to local women and girls.
Residents of Mata village gathered under shade to avoid the scorching sun. The crow fixed upon Habiba Suleiman, a midwife at Taveta Sub- County Hospital, as she explained a matter all too familiar to her. Momentarily she turns from the crowd, trying to control the overwhelming emotions the issue brings:
“It is very difficult when you see infants barely a week old, brought to the health facility in pain after undergoing FGM. Some have died due to excessive bleeding while scores of others have to grapple with health-related complications after being subjected to the harmful practice.”
According to County Executive Committee for Gender, Laban Mwashighadi, FGM is still widespread in Taita Taveta and Kenya despite the enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 and a minimum punishment of three years in prison or KSH200,000 [USD2000] fine. Infants barely a-week old are being cut behind closed doors, especially in rural areas.
Such testimonies validate findings of a recent study by the MoPSYG which indicate that 61.3% of infants under the age of 5 years have been subjected to FGM in the county. 22% of children between 5-9 years and 11.1% aged 0-14 years have been subjected to the cut.
Areas listed as FGM hotspots in the county include Mata, Kitobo, Salaita, Timbila, Olkug, Ngutini, Eldoro and Marodo – all in Taveta Sub-County – while in Taita Sub-County the practice remains prevalent in Sagalla and Kasighau.
Awareness is the new approach
“We need to focus more on raising awareness on the dangers of FGM and challenging ingrained ideas that the procedure is a cultural necessity,” explains Suleiman. And this is what she has done in her bid to push for change. Popularly known in the community as Mama Najma, the medical practitioner frequents public meetings. Here, she spreads her message and has become a fearless anti-FGM crusader. Although the practice still continues, she has made sure mothers, and the community at large, are aware of the damaging effects of FGM.
“They are aware that FGM contributes to severe bleeding and health issues including cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications at childbirth and increases the risk of newborn deaths. In addition, women have longer, riskier deliveries, which can result in tearing during childbirth.”
At first, she says she faced resistance from the community which highly regards conservative norms:
“But this only served to strengthen my resolve. I began to engage anti-FGM activists and with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), they have become a force to reckon with in the fight against retrogressive vices in the community,” she explains during the interview.
The midwife takes credit for training young girls to become agents of change and break the cycle of destructive cultural practices. Today, Suleiman works with the community to protect infants, support girls and enforce laws to make sure violations are adequately addressed.
She is upbeat that a new directive confirmed by visiting CAS Shebesh will yeild better returns. The directive calls for all children visiting health facilities in the county to undergo checks to establish if they have undergone the cut.
“This is a huge milestone in the Anti- FGM campaign and will make it easier for medical practitioners to hold abusers to account.”
Shebesh issued the directive during her tour of Kimala, Mata and Bura Ndogo villages – known locations with a high FGM prevalence. The tour follows reports from local leaders that perpetrators were now targeting infants. The CAS was emphatic that parents of affected children will face the full force of the law. Further, chiefs and their assistants will not be spared in the on-going crackdown to stem the vice.
The chiefs were also directed to conduct visits to households with newborns to follow up on their safety. The CAS also tasked health personnel in hospitals to verify the status of children. Furthermore, the law was also read to communities, reiterating the penalties applicable to perpetrators. Security officials, chiefs and village elders were encouraged to identify and report, adding that ignorance is no excuse to break the law.
In a separate interview, the UNFPA Country Representative Dr Ademola Olajide stated that the agency is working closely with the relevant government institutions both at the county and national levels to address the issue of GBV and harmful practices which have found a way to creep back because of the COVID-19 response.