Female Genital Mutilation FAQ
You may have heard the term “female genital mutilation,” or FGM. But what does it mean? How and why is it practiced? FGM in Kenya and around the world is a difficult topic to approach. As a start, here are some answers to our most common questions:
1. What is FGM?
FGM refers to any procedure that involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
2. Are there different types of FGM?
Yes. There are four types of FGM as classified by the World Health Organization (WHO):
- Type I: Clitoridectomy, or the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. This is the type of FGM most commonly practiced in the communities we serve.
- Type II: Excision, or the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora.
- Type III: Infibulation, or the narrowing of the vaginal orifice with a seal formed from the cutting and stitching together of the labia minora and the labia majora. This is considered the most severe form of FGM as it tends to cause greater health complications.
- Type IV: Any and all harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, including pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, or cauterizing.
- Deinfibulation, or the practice of cutting open a woman who has been infibulated. This is done to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.
- Reinfibulation, or the practice of sewing the external labia back together after deinfibulation. This is typically performed following childbirth. Repeated deinfibulation and reinfibulation increase the likelihood of complications, including infection, hemorrhaging, scarring, urinary incontinence, and birthing complications.
3. Why is FGM practiced?
The reasons why FGM is practiced vary across countries and communities, but what they have in common is that they are all manifestations of gender inequality. Some societies use FGM as a means to control women’s sexuality, believing that the practice will curb promiscuity and ensure women’s virginity until marriage. Some practicing communities consider female genitalia unclean and unattractive, so they perform FGM in an effort to improve hygiene and appearance. Some believe that FGM increases a woman’s fertility and desirability, and thus, marriageability, which can then increase her bride price and carry economic incentive as well.
In the indigenous Maasai communities we serve, FGM is practiced as a ritual rite of passage. It is believed to signify a girl’s transition into womanhood, at which point she is expected to marry, leave school, have children, and assume traditional domestic responsibilities of the household. Despite efforts to curb FGM in Kenya, it is perpetuated by deeply entrenched social stigmas that portray uncut girls as unclean, immature, dishonorable, and unworthy of/unfit for marriage. Some continue to practice FGM due to social pressure or fear of being looked down upon and ostracized by their community. Sadly, even after becoming aware of the dangers, some communities continue to practice FGM because the perceived social benefits are believed to be greater than the disadvantages.
4. Is FGM legal in Kenya?
No. In 2011, the Parliament of Kenya passed the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, which outlawed the practice and established harsh punishments for those who aid or abet it. This helped decrease rates of FGM in Kenya (from 27% in 2009 to 21% in 2014), but it also pushed the practice underground. Especially in remote, under-resourced areas like ours with weaker law enforcement mechanisms, FGM is illegally conducted in homes or private health clinics away from public view. This is why it’s critical that governments don’t rely strictly on top-down legal and policy interventions to eradicate FGM, but instead include local, community-led approaches like ours at Kakenya’s Dream.
5. How prevalent is FGM around the world and in the communities Kakenya’s Dream serves?
About 5% of women and girls alive today (more than 200 million in total) have undergone FGM, most of whom live in Africa. Every year, an additional 3 million girls are at risk.
In the Maasai communities we serve, 66% of girls experience FGM. At Kakenya’s Dream however, we proudly ensure that 100% of our students complete their education FGM-free!
6. At what age do girls undergo FGM?
The timing of FGM around the world can vary greatly depending on the cultural context. As a common rite of passage however, it is typically performed during adolescence. In Kenya, the largest share of FGM survivors (45%) underwent the practice between the ages of 10 and 14.
7. What are the health consequences of FGM?
The immediate health consequences of FGM include severe pain, excessive bleeding, shock, fever, and infection — the risk of which increases even further when girls lack access to sanitary pads and menstrual hygiene products. Long-term health consequences include complications during childbirth (which is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in the developing world), anemia, infertility, pain during sexual intercourse, and an increased risk of HIV transmission. Many FGM survivors also report lasting psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the procedure.
8. Is FGM the same as female circumcision and female genital cutting?
Yes. All of these terms refer to the same practice. “Female genital mutilation” is used by most human rights organizations, including the UN and WHO, as it best conveys the severity of the practice. Female genital cutting (FGC) was introduced as a milder substitute for FGM in an effort to avoid alienating or offending survivors and practicing communities. Kakenya’s Dream uses FGM and FGC interchangeably.
Female circumcision is the term perhaps most commonly used by the general public, but it is not a term we use at Kakenya’s Dream. We believe it to be misleading, as it reinforces a false equivalence with medical male circumcision, which has known health benefits like reducing transmission of HIV and other STIs. FGM, in contrast, has no benefits and serves no medical purpose. In fact, FGM can actually increase the risk of HIV transmission. This can occur when the same instrument is used to cut more than one girl at a time without proper sterilization. This is often the case in the communities we serve, where traditionally, formal ceremonies are organized in order to cut large groups of girls at the same time.
9. Do Kenyans support the abolition of FGM?
Yes! Across Kenya, more than 9 in 10 people who have heard of FGM believe it should end. Education plays a central role in these beliefs: 32% of women with no education support the continuation of FGM, compared to just 4% of women with a primary education.
10. What is Kakenya’s Dream doing to end FGM?
First and foremost, we engage and educate the parents of the students at our schools about the dangers of FGM to ensure that 100% of our students complete their education FGM-free.
To fulfill our greater vision of sustainable, community-wide transformation, we also tackle the root cause (harmful social norms and gender inequality) by working with individuals and communities beyond our campus. We promote awareness of FGM, gender inequality, and sexual and reproductive health and rights through our Health and Leadership Training program. Through weekly after-school workshops, this program has equipped nearly 25,000 boys and girls across 162 local schools with critical information on their bodies, health, legal rights, and skills to advocate for their wellbeing. Our Linda Dada campaign, which provides similar workshops on sexual and reproductive health, targets parents and community leaders in addition to children. By encouraging open dialogue, we aim to combat social stigmas surrounding FGM and related issues like child marriage and teen pregnancy. Mothers and grandmothers in the community already see the impact of these programs on the lives of their daughters.
11. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect FGM?
Schools in Kenya closed for nearly a year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Girls were sent home from our boarding schools during lockdowns, where they were at greater risk of undergoing FGM. Economic pressures (including a 200% rise in national unemployment) further fueled the practice. Many parents felt they had no choice but to marry off their daughters in exchange for a bride price; since girls who have undergone the “purification” ritual of FGM attract a higher price, the procedure was incentivized.
To address these risks, we launched the Angaza Project in March of 2020. Through this emergency response program, our team conducted frequent wellness checks and delivered monthly care packages with resources our students lacked at home, including basic necessities and distance learning materials.