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Between Scylla and Charybdis

06 February 2015

The case for zero tolerance of FGM is not as simple as it seems, writes Katy Newell-Jones

Siegfried Modola/reuters

Carrying on: a Pokot girl who has just been circumcised. Circumcision is a rite of passage within the Kenyan Pokot tribe, marking the transition to womanhood. Despite the introduction, in 2011, of a government ban, it remains a requirement for all girls before they marry

Carrying on: a Pokot girl who has just been circumcised. Circumcision is a rite of passage within the Kenyan Pokot tribe, marking the transition to ...

TODAY is International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation (FGM).

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 (FGM).

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 time.

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 Elders.

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 charity.

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