In parts of Kenya and Somalia, a girl’s transition to womanhood is marked by the mutilation of their genitals. The reasoning differs from person to person – tradition, superstition, patriarchal practice – but consistently, there are far-reaching economic impacts. University of Queensland behavioural economist Dr David Smerdon is working to find policy solutions to eradicate female genital mutilation in communities. Ahead of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation – 6 February – Dr Smerdon reflects on his last research trip.
“Have you been to Africa before?” asked my taxi driver as we left the airport.
“Yes,” I replied, “I visited South Africa.” “Oh, then you haven’t been to Africa, my friend.” This seemed an odd comment and, given that I knew for a fact he was overcharging me a US $5 for the ride, I didn’t trust it. But now that I’ve returned from Kenya, I realise this may be the most truthful thing the driver told me. (He also said the Swahili word for chess is karate, which, it turns out, is the Swahili word for karate.)
I like to think of myself as a travelled man, and I’ve been to my share of third-world countries. But Kenya was something else. I’ve lived in poor communities in Peru, but I’ve never seen such extreme poverty. I’ve worked on income inequality, but I’ve never witnessed such a gap between the top and the bottom.
And as far as culture and social norms go, I’ve never noticed such a big difference in our ways of life and things I take for granted.
I was visiting Kenya to meet with communities for a specific reason: I wanted to learn more about female genital mutilation (FGM). I have been researching this for a while as part of a larger project in Somalia, but West Pokot in Kenya has the same tradition. Girls in this region get cut to signify their progression to womanhood, which is normally between the ages of 11 and 14. FGM here is called “pharaonic”, also known as “type three”, and the process is brutal. It’s nothing like male circumcision; the girl will lie bedridden for days or weeks afterwards with her legs crossed, until the bleeding subsides and the wound heals. Practically every part of the genitals is cut, and sometimes sewn shut afterwards. The long-lasting health consequences are severe, especially when the girl eventually gives birth.
In a region where the average fertility rate is around seven children per woman, the overall effects of this tradition are huge.
The curious part is that there’s no unified reason for why FGM goes on there. It’s statistically more common in Islamic countries, but in Pokot almost all people are Christians. Some of the men I spoke to said that women’s sexual urges needed to be controlled, else they would run rampant (a few quoted the biblical story of Eve). Some of the women said that if their daughters weren’t “circumcised”, no man would marry them.
Many thought they were among the minority in their community secretly opposed to FGM, though the reality was there was a silent majority – a phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance”.
This is where my research is focused.
It’s not just the health consequences at stake. I get the impression that FGM is hardwired into, or maybe even codifies, a number of other problems, such as women’s rights and child marriage. On my first day in the villages, I heard the story of a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped by men from a distant village – with the complicity of her own father –and forced to marry a 60-year-old man as his third wife. She managed to escape with the help of an aunt and was granted (with some difficulty) police permission to reside in a makeshift refuge. Nothing happened to the men. By coincidence, I later visited the town of the old man, who joined our FGM session and met me in person.
It’s hard for me to reconcile these experiences with the life I know, of gender equality, supermarkets and the like.
I tried to keep an open mind and I made it clear that I was there to understand, not to judge. It wasn’t easy, but I think this approach was appreciated. The villagers were extremely welcoming and hospitable, and eager to engage for hours on end. Several people told me that they’d had many visits from NGOs who had come to tell them what to do. They liked that instead we came to understand and to listen. One man in Masol was the most vocal in giving passionate, heated monologues in defence of FGM. His opinion hadn’t changed by the end of our session, though some of his friends had changed their minds. Still, he warmly thanked me for coming and for the manner in which we spoke to them, and in fact it was he who called for the village to give me a local name. (They settled on “N’gorialem”, which means “Bull with a red-and-white dotted head.”)
And, thankfully, most declared that they did want FGM to end, and they told me to come back and visit again soon to talk about FGM to the rest of their community. “Please come in two weeks’ time,” some pleaded. I couldn’t bear to tell them that it would likely be a year before I’ll make it back to Africa, nor that the rest of the project would be focusing on Somalia.
Some of the women asked me to come back to their community and speak to them all again before their young daughters got much older. I didn’t have an answer.
I met real heroes too.
The visit to the villages was organised in part by Beyond FGM, a young community-based organisation in West Pokot that actively promotes abandoning FGM. Its team works tirelessly in the region to protect young girls and try to persuade the communities to change their norms. Its local coordinator received a medal from the Queen of England for her efforts. It was they who have started building a permanent safe centre for abused women and girls who have run away from the threat of circumcision or child marriage. Due to a lack of funds, the refuge sits unfinished, four walls without a roof, while the organisation’s employees house girls in their own homes, including the 14-year-old bride I mentioned.
“The money will come, one day,” one of the members of the board told me. Religious and unabashedly optimistic, he added, “God willing, it will come soon.”