TODAY is International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital
That there should be zero tolerance of FGM seems to us
self-evident; yet my recent visit to Kenya has left me wondering
how zero tolerance fits with compassion, and understanding the
challenges that people face in relation to FGM.
In Kuria, on the Kenya-Tanzania border, about 80 per cent of
girls and women undergo female genital cutting, referred to by the
World Health Organisation (WHO) as female genital mutilation
The cutting takes place only in December, usually every two
years. Each clan's Elders announce the beginning of the cutting
season, after visiting sacred places in the forest. Many people in
Kuria fear the "witchcraft" used by the Elders to call people to
cut their girls, believing that this enables the Elders to harm
them and their loved ones.
Here, as elsewhere, the churches have stood firmly against the
cutting of girls and women. In the months before December 2014,
churches campaigned strongly among their congregations. Pastors
spoke passionately from the pulpit. Church leaders held counselling
sessions with the families of girls "at risk", and visited homes to
dissuade parents who were under pressure to have their daughters
cut. Church members offered sanctuary to girls who ran away from
their families to avoid being cut.
Church leaders believe that the power of prayer can overcome
witchcraft; as December approached, they felt confident that
families in their congregations would resist any calls to cut. As
the momentum of the cut took hold, however, and despite all the
churches' efforts, many families gave in to local pressure and
chose to have their girls cut.
IN JANUARY, I met a group of church leaders to ask them how they
were responding to those families whose girls had been recently
cut. Although different churches have responded slightly
differently, all have felt the need to take a strong stance by
punishing those who have gone against the teachings of the Church
by having their daughters cut.
Many churches are excluding both the parents and the girls from
participating in church activities, including services, for up to a
year. Some accept the family back only if they publicly repent of
their actions. One church was more lenient, excluding only the
parent responsible for the decision: "Separating the girl from her
church when she is cut would be a double punishment."
Church leaders facing almost impossible choices are clearly
trying to adopt a zero-tolerance approach, in the hope that this
will end the practice. The closer I get, however, to communities,
families, and individuals, and to the decisions they are making,
the more apparent are the links between FGM and the wider rights of
girls and women. For the practice to end, women and girls need to
have a greater voice in communities; and issues such as early
marriage, and access to education need to be part of the changes. I
find I cannot have zero tolerance towards families struggling to
make what are genuinely difficult decisions.
I have met lots of loving families who, under intense pressure
to have their girls cut, face a traumatic choice. Huge pressure
comes from respected, feared Elders, in positions of power, as well
as from their friends and neighbours. If they choose not to cut,
the isolation and abuse they face from their friends and neighbours
may last throughout their lives. If the girls are cut, they may
face exclusion from their church community (with all that that
entails), besides suffering from the physical effects of the cut.
These choices are not straightforward, and change does take
Those with access to education are usually the best-informed,
and are more likely to know of others in their social circles who
are not cut, so the choice is less difficult for them. Those from
poorer backgrounds are under more pressure to conform to
traditional practices. With little access to education, they are
more likely to believe in the effects of the witchcraft used by the
They are less likely to understand fully the implications of the
cut, and more likely to be discriminated against, and excluded from
their community, and from marriage, if they oppose it. For these
families, having their daughters cut enables them to be married
off, although this also means they drop out of school. The dowry of
cows that marriage brings can lift the family, at least
temporarily, from absolute poverty.
Ending FGM is not just a matter of whether or not a girl
undergoes genital cutting, but is a life-changing decision about
the place and status of a girl in her community: about who will
talk to her, or exclude her; whom she can marry; what she is, and
is not, allowed to do in the community; and what life opportunities
are available to her.
At the community level, zero tolerance as adopted by the
churches causes division and isolation. We need to find more
compassionate approaches, based on increasing the voice and the
life opportunities of girls and women - and the recognition that,
if the cut were to be abandoned by the whole community, this would
widen the life choices of all girls and women within it.
Katy Newell-Jones is Programme Director of Feed the
Minds, an ecumenical Christian international development