Female genital mutilation, aka FGM, is a variety of procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In many cultures, the practice is carried out by "traditional" circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities. In many settings, health care providers perform FGM with the belief that the procedure is safer when medicalized1. The World Health Organization (WHO), however, strongly urges health professionals NOT to perform such procedures. Globally, FGM has been recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects an inequality between the sexes and can result in threats to a woman's health, security, and physical integrity. More than 200 million girls and women have been "cut" in 30 countries among Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Currently, FGM is deeply rooted in some parts of Kenyan cultures, and critics say the current policies outlawing FGM is not working. Today, we're talking to Miss Josephine Murgor, a Public Health Professional and Anti-FGM/Cutting Activist. The below Q&A discusses the cultural practice of FGM in Kenya, consequences, and what Kenya is doing to end this practice.
Q: What is female genital mutilation (FGM)?
A: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also referred to as Female Genital Cutting (FGC) and circumcision, is a practice that involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
The practice can be performed four different ways depending on culture, traditions, customs and religion. Type I consists of partially or totally removing the clitoris. Type II comprises of partially or completely removing the clitoris and the labia minora. Type III involves sewing the labia minora and or the labia majora with or without the clitoris and is the most severe type. Type IV is any other harmful procedures done to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons such as piercing, pricking and scraping.
Q: How prevalent is FGM in Kenya? Are you aware of the prevalence of FGM in other countries?
A: In Kenya, the practice has been cultural and traditional among 38 of the 43 ethnic groups (UNFPA, 2019). In 2014, it was documented that 21% of girls and women in Kenya have undergone FGM/C. Prevalence rates are particularly high among certain communities such as the Somali (97.7%), Kisii (96.1), Maasai (73.2%) and the Pokot (over 73%).
Q: What is the legal status of FGM in Kenya?
A: In 2011, the Kenyan Parliament passed the Prohibition of FGM/C Act which prohibits the practice in the country. Anyone performing FGM/C or involved in forcing a girl to undergo the practice will face up to seven years of imprisonment and a fine of KSH 500,000, equivalent to $500 USD (POP, 2017). In addition, a person will be subjected to criminal charges if they take a Kenyan citizen to another country to undergo FGM/C, or if they are aware that an individual will undergo the practice. This law permits any law enforcement officer to arrest those involved with performing the practice. (POP, 2017).
Q: How has the legal status of FGM impacted medicalization of the practice?
A: The criminalization of FGM/C in Kenya has greatly impacted the prevalence rates of the practice. Most communities that practice FGM/C in Kenya don’t do it at a hospital. Medicilized FGM/C isnt common.
Q: At what age do girls typically undergo FGM?
A: It varies by ethnicity groups but typically between the ages of 10-14.
Q: What are the most common reasons used in Kenya to justify this practice?
A: Various communities in Kenya practice FGM/C for different reasons. Some believe that it’s way to transition girls to womanhood and to control a women’s sexuality, making them less likely to engage in pre-marital sex.
Q: What are the consequences associated with FGM?
A: The removal or damages done to the female genital tissues interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes psychological and emotional problems, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The effects of FGM/C on a girls and women’s body can be a long term issue with a stressor like FGM/C. A number of studies have found that pain, trauma, shock, fear, anxiety and depression due to FGM/C hinder a woman’s mental health. These effects are due to the trauma of the procedure and the immediate short and long term complications (ICRW, 2018).
Q: If a woman has had FGM, is she able to be sexually active or achieve sexual pleasure?
A: A woman can still be sexually active but can cause decreased sexual pleasure, pain during sex, difficulty during penetration and scar formation.
Q: What initiatives, if any, are in place in Kenya to reduce or eliminate the practice? Has the country noticed any progress?
A: Over the years there has been a significant decline in FGM/C prevalence rates. Many NGO’s, activists and stakeholders have dedicated their time to ending the practice. The criminalization of the practice has definitely impacted the progress of eliminating FGM/C.
Q: How does FGM violate a woman’s reproductive right, and why is this a feminist issue?
A: It’s a feminist issue because most of the girls who undergo FGM/C are "forced" to be cut. Therefore, it’s a violation of a girl’s rights. Girls and women should have the freedom over their bodies.
Infection of the wound can lead to reproductive tract infections. Women who become pregnant endure agony since the vaginal opening is too small for a normal delivery. Often times, the opening has to be cut in order for the fetal to come out.
Q: How can readers and other women’s rights activists become more involved in efforts to reduce and eliminate FGM in Kenya, as well as in other countries?
A: Volunteering with an organization that works in the FGM/C sector. Raising more awareness on FGM/C either on social media or by hosting a talk or an event.
Q: What do you believe the U.S. government can do to help combat FGM practices in Kenya?
A: I think the Kenyan government is already making a lot of progress to end the practice. I think more work needs to be done in combating FGM/C in the U.S.
Josephine Chenangat Murgor is a passionate Public Health Professional, Anti- Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting Activist, Educator, and Mental Health Researcher. Over the past few years, Ms. Murgor has closely worked with POM Harvesters International, where she has educated more than 500 Pokot girls and boys about the harmful health consequences of FGM/C.
She recently graduated from Emory University with a Masters degree in Public Health, with a focus on Community Health and Development. Her dissertation was a mental health policy recommendation for The Kenyan government regarding Pokot girls and Women who have undergone FGM/C. During her time at Emory, Ms. Murgor was elected as Co-President for the Emory Mental Health Alliance, where she worked closely with Emory's Rollins School of Public Health and the student government to raise more awareness on mental health, while reducing stigma and promoting various ways students can take care of their mental health. In her Presidency, she planned a networking event for students to learn about local mental health experts and their current work and community projects.
Ms. Murgor is dedicated to improving mental health services in Kenya by challenging the government and other stakeholders to prioritize mental health care across the country. She is also passionate about ending FGM/C and empowering women and girls to raise their voices about their rights.
More resources about FGM:
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). (2018). Mental Health and Ending Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting : Recommendations for U.S Foreign Policy and
Programs. Washington, DC. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/FGM-C- Policy-Brief_September_v8_WebReady.pdf.
Population Council Female (2017). Genital Mutilation/ Cutting in Kenya : Is Change Taking Place? Descriptive Statistics from Four Waves of Demographic and Health Surveys. https://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/2017RH_FGMCKenyaChange.pdf
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).(2019). Female Genital Mutilation Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from: https://www.unfpa.org/resources/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-frequently-asked-questions
The World Health Organization
The Pulitzer Center