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FGM in 2018: Should women be allowed to voluntarily practice it and ‘uphold tradition’?

A female Kenyan doctor is pushing for the lifting of the ban on the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). She claims the ban is unconstitutional and discriminates against ‘national heritage’. Women’s rights activists are up in arms. The question that is raised is this: Is advocacy for women rights about allowing women to dictate their own choices, or does such advocacy extend to preventing those who wish to harm themselves from doing so?

The horrors of FGM have been exposed worldwide and multiple initiatives have dedicated themselves to the alleviation of this inhumane practice. The ancient ritual, once performed in at least 27 African countries and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, is usually carried out by traditional cutters. They often use unsterilized blades or knives to partially or totally remove female genitalia. Despite its brutality, an estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM.

Kenya outlawed the practice in 2011, but it continues because many communities believe it is necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters’ marriage prospects. One in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Kenya have undergone FGM, according to the United Nations.

One in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Kenya have undergone FGM.

Now, Tatu Kamau, a Kenyan doctor, has taken a unique public stance on the matter. She recently went to court, seeking to legalise FGM. According to the Kenyan news station KTN, Dr Kamau is arguing that “a ban on the internationally condemned practice is unconstitutional. Adult women should be allowed to do what they want with their bodies.”

Dr Kamau filed a petition in the Machakos High Court in eastern Kenya, claiming that women are being harassed and arrested for undergoing FGM. “Women can decide to drink, to smoke; women can join the army; women can do all sorts of things that might bring them harm or injury, and they are allowed to make that decision,” she told KTN. “I think a woman should be able to make the decision regarding FGM too. And once she has made that decision, she should be able to access the best medical care to have it done.”

Read: Five Kenyan high school teenage girls to visit Google HQ after creating an app to end Female Genital Mutilation

Is this a matter of choice?

There have been arguments in support of this logic. Some feel that Dr Kamau’s pro-choice stance gives women further license over their bodies and allows them safer conditions under which to exercise their freedom of choice. However, many say that women who still choose to undergo the practice voluntarily have been culturally indoctrinated and are therefore not making sound decisions to begin with.

Many say that women who still choose to undergo FGM voluntarily have been ‘culturally indoctrinated’.

Nonetheless, women’s rights campaigners have been unflinching in their criticism of Dr Kamau’s petition. They have stated that overturning the ban would be a regressive step, undoing the decades of gains made to improve the sexual and reproductive health of Kenya’s women and girls.

Boko Mohammed, a former excisor, holding the tool she used to perform the FGM procedure at a community meeting in Kabele Village, in Amibara District. Ethiopia Photo: ANP/EPA/Unicef/Holt

Speaking to KTN, Njoki Njehu, from the charity Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Center, said: “Everything we know about FGM shows that it has no benefit and causes a great deal of harm. We also know the majority of those who undergo FGM are young girls, not adults. We – all women’s rights groups – are ready to fight this if it comes to that.”

Maasai FGM activist Agnes Pareyio, who was cut against her will at the age of 14 and has since founded the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative to educate women and girls about the practice, told the Guardian that Kamau’s petition was an insult to women and proved that the doctor did not understand the brutality behind the practice.

“I am a survivor and I know the full extent of the pain that women go through with FGM. It is a violation of our human rights,” Pareyio said. “Many women still think this is a process they must go through, but when you explain to them that not every woman is cut, that not every society does this, then they question why we do it. How can you try to legalise something that kills women? I think [Dr Kamau] is trying to make history.”

While the petition has been met with contempt by local and international activists, some tribal elders, like those from Kenya’s Marakwet district, have welcomed the move, claiming they have been “hunted and punished for engaging in our cultural right”.

The petition is expected to be heard by the court on 26 February 2018. Proceedings will no doubt provide an interesting look into the constant African struggle to maintain tradition, even when harmful, and whether FGM will prove to be the line that pro-choicers draw in the sand.

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