Underage girls in Pokot are taking the bull by the horns. Well, literally

With the campaign to abolish FGM in Kenya in hot gear, minors in the semi-arid areas in Pokot are circumcising each other

Without any experience, painkillers or the hubris that accompany such ceremonies, young girls are giving in to social pressure from their culture and taking over from elderly women who have been doing the tradition for years

“I know it sounds awkward but this is culture,” says Ivy Chepkit, a 15-year old high school girl. “We are now left on our own. This must be done. It has to go on.”

Like Chepkit, underage girls in Lorum have been quietly conducting the cut on each other, oblivious of the repercussions of the practice

“It is the only way now,” says Joy, 13 years old. “It is our responsibility to take the baton. They have been telling us we are leaders of tomorrow. That tomorrow is now.”

Scaring as it sounds, human rights activist are still scratching their heads, wondering what part of the law can be used to stop the trend.

“This is worrying. Very disturbing,” says Eunice Ndegwa, a women rights activist based in Eldoret. “It is even worse than what we have been dealing with. Does it mean all the grassroots campaign have been in vain?”

In many African cultures, under-age girls are increasingly under social pressure to undergo FGM, with disastrous consequences being meted on families who resist conforming to the tradition of female circumcision. Among the Pokot, a girl who has not been circumcised is not considered marriageable. She is unclean, promiscuous and immature. Girls are generally circumcised at age 14 or 15, usually just before they are married. 

And this is what Chepkit and her friends are afraid of. Becoming social pariahs has far reaching ramifications among underage girls in communities still practicing FGM. 

“I was told I would smell my whole life if I did not do this,” she says, adding: “Who wants his husband to leave them after marriage?”

And she is not alone. Many girls conform to the pressure and go through the practice, even with the local administration piling pressure on them to abandon the cut

The UN Interagency Statement on FGM Elimination says that in some societies, the practice is embedded in coming-of-age rituals, sometimes for entry into women’s secret societies, which are considered necessary for girls to become adult and responsible members of the society. Girls themselves may desire to undergo the procedure as a result of social pressure from peers and because of fear of stigmatization and rejection by their communities if they do not follow the tradition. Also, in some places, girls who undergo the procedure are given rewards such as celebrations, public recognition and gifts. 

“Because of their lack of choice and the powerful influence of tradition, many girls accept circumcision as a necessary, and even natural, part of life, and adopt the rationales given for its existence without questioning their families,” says Richard Kipsang, an activist

According to UNICEF at least 200 million women and girls alive today in 30 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, have been subjected to some form of FGM, from clitoral cutting to infibulation.

In the African cultural setup where a girl’s wishes are often irrelevant, it is becoming a worrying trend, a fact not lost on women rights activists. 

“Girls’ desires to conform to peer norms may make them eager to undergo circumcision, since those who remain uncut may be teased and looked down on by their age mates,” says Papa Joe, a film producer and women rights advocate in Eldoret. “The ritual cutting is often embedded in ceremonies in which the girls are feted and showered with presents and their families are honored.”

This, he adds, could be what is pushing underage girls to take the bull by the horn

In Kenyan communities where it is still widely practiced, FGM has become an important part of the cultural identity of girls and women and may also impart a sense of pride, a coming of age and a feeling of community membership.

“We want to belong. To be recognized. If our elders have been doing this for ages and getting away with it, why not us?” quips Ivy

The anti-FGM law passed in 2001 is silent on the punishment for underage girls caught practicing FGM. It is also not very clear how the government would arrest minors.

“This is a new loophole that needs to be addressed before it gets out of hand,” says Ken Kigen, a lawyer in Kapcherop. “Maybe we should enact new laws to rope in parents who cannot stop their girls from undergoing the cut.”

For now, Chepkit and her colleagues could get away with it

The jury is still out on this one