Why do these women in Kenya support female genital mutilation?

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills and you’re tuned to The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. When we think about the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM, one thing quickly comes to mind: That is should be stopped. But my colleague at the BBC, Anne Soy, has been talking to a group of women in Kenya who support the practice. Anne Soy joins me now and Anne, tell me about these women. I know you went to a meeting. Who was there and what were they talking about? Anne Soy: Well there were well over a thousand women who had gathered from eight clans of the Maasai, and they said that for many years, people have been talking about female genital mutilation. No one consulted them even when the country was coming up with laws that prohibited FGM, and so they felt that they were being discriminated against and they needed to make their voice heard, and they were coming to address the government to tell them that they wanted the practice to go on. Hills: So these are women, they’re part of the Maasai people that any visitor to Kenya often sees. The Maasai people are very proud, a lot of traditions. One thing I think I just want to get out there right now: It’s a difficult topic, but female genital mutilation is sort of just that. It’s a ritual. It used to be called circumcision, but we’re talking about the removal of a clitoris and possibly the inner or outer labia, and this is done as a ritual to bring women in certain parts of the world to adulthood – it’s a signifier, but it’s deeply controversial, as is obvious just from its description. Why do these particular women, these Maasai women, support it? Soy: Well one, they say it’s their tradition and it’s been handed down to them. Generations of Maasai women have been practicing this and so they don’t see why they should stop that now, and one of the reasons they gave me is also that the men practice mail circumcision and no one has a problem with that. In fact, it’s being encouraged because research has shown that it is helpful to help prevent HIV AIDS transmission, and so they say that if anyone wants to stop circumcision, it should be for both male and female, and for them it’s an important rite of passage. It marks that point when a girl stops being a girl and becomes a woman, and so anyone who has not been circumcised in their eyes is a girl and not a woman, and not fit to carry out certain traditions that only women are allowed to carry out. Hills: It’s interesting, the comparison to circumcision. Of course male circumcision is completely different and doesn’t present any of the issues that female genital mutilation does, but what you touch on is an important thing. In my reading, the external pressure to stop this practice really seems to be what a lot of the Maasai and other proponents of it really reject. Let’ play an audio clip of one of the Maasai activists that you met, and she’s arguing for female genital mutilation. Maasai activist: The Swahili have a saying, a person who abandons her culture is a slave. Why do they want to make me a slave? But we believe it’s easier for a circumcised woman to give birth. If an uncircumcised girl gets pregnant, she has to be cut before she gives birth and that leaves her with scars. Otherwise I as a mother cannot touch her. She’s dirty. She won’t find a husband. Even the one who impregnates her will disown her. Hills: Now it’s an interesting comment and as I understand it, the women who do not undergo female genital mutilation are ostracized and won’t get married. I’m curious whether at this meeting, were there any women who were saying “No, we have to end female genital mutilation”? Soy: Well there was one activist who is anti-FGM but she was quiet throughout the meeting. I tried to talk to her and she said that they had agreed that they would come and listen to the women. She’s a leader in that community, and so they were just coming to listen to the women and take their issues. There had been a previous meeting of these women where they turned violent and started attacking women who have abandoned the practice, women who are preventing their daughters from undergoing the cut, and so this was meant to make a declaration to say that the Maasai women are going for it. Of course there are few who have abandoned the practice, but they’re not regarded very highly in the community. Hills: Female genital mutilation, it’s a very tough topic to talk about and it must be tough to report on. What’s it like for you, talking to these women directly? Soy: At first I was afraid because I also come from an ethnic community that traditionally has practiced FGM, but the levels have really gone down, so I know from my own culture that a woman who has not been circumcised is seen as a child in front of a woman who has been circumcised, and so I thought that that was going to be a barrier because the women who have been circumcised have no respect at all for women who haven’t, and so I thought it was going to be a barrier, but luckily we found women who are willing to talk to us, and of course we were being very, very careful. We were asking the men, because it was easier to talk to them, when is the right time to approach the women to talk, and even when we went to the meeting, we stood about 100 meters away because these women were carrying sticks, they were ready for war, and anyone who looked like an intruder would face their wroth. So we kept our distance and we had to consult with the chiefs, we had to consult with the elders to find out when was the right time to approach. Hills: The BBC’s Anne Soy in Kenya. Thanks so much for talking to us today. Soy: Thank you.