A Kenyan doctor has been accused of “trying to make history” after filing a controversial petition to legalise female genital mutilation.
Dr Tatu Kamau, who has held a number of high-level positions at the Ministry of Health, told a high court that Kenya’s 2011 ban on FGM was unconstitutional and discriminated against “national heritage”.
Kamau claimed that women who choose to harm their bodies through drink or cigarettes should also have the freedom to decide whether they are cut.
“If 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 … a woman can [also] make that decision,” she told KTN News after filing papers to overturn the ban.
“And once she has made that decision, she should be able to access the best medical care to have it done.”
Kenya outlawed the long-standing practice in 2011. Sweeping provisions made it illegal to carry out or help someone to procure FGM. Failure to report the practice, or stigmatising a woman – or any man who marries or supports her – for not undergoing the procedure were also banned. Causing death by performing FGM became punishable with life imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Kenyan shillings (£1,372).
According to the UN population fund (UNFPA), 21% of girls and women in Kenya aged 15-49 have undergone FGM.
But the ban has pushed the practice further underground.
FGM, which usually requires the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora and majora, is almost always performed without anasthesia by traditional cutters, often using unsterilised blades. Those subjected to the practice can bleed to death or die from infection, or experience serious complications during childbirth.
While Kamau’s petition to outlaw the practice has been met with contempt by local and international FGM activists, some tribal elders from Kenya’s Marakwet district have welcomed the move, claiming that they had been “hunted and punished for engaging in our cultural right”.
Maasai FGM activist Agnes Pareyio, who was cut at 14 against her will and has since founded the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative to educate women and girls about the practice, said Kamau’s petition – expected to be heard by Machakos high court in eastern Kenya on 26 February – was an insult to women as it proved the doctor did not understand the brutality behind the practice.
“I am a survivor and I know the 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 that not every woman is cut, not every society does this, they question why we do it. How can you try to legalise something that kills women? I think [Kamau] is trying to make history.”
Brendan Wynne, of Donor Direct Action, an international women’s group that runs an FGM fund for frontline activists, said it was potentially dangerous for a female doctor of such high standing in Kenyan society to take such legal action.
“The fact that a doctor is calling for an extremely harmful human rights abuse to be made legal is incredible. She clearly has no idea about the implications for women and girls,” said Wynne.
“We can’t afford to waste time opening up this debate again while so many millions of girls are still at risk. African women on the front lines need to be supported instead in their efforts to end FGM once and for all.”
FGM – which affects 200 million women around the world – is still extremely prevalent in certain parts of Kenya, particularly among the Kisii, Maasai, Samburu and Somali communities (pdf), where some girls are cut before the age of five.
Campaigners argue that the ban enables girls to reject a practice often forced upon them by their parents or elders.
“Women’s bodies should be valued and respected,” said Josephine Carlsson of Feed the Minds, a charity working to end FGM through education and awareness programmes with the Kuria group in Kenya.
“The fact that FGM is illegal and remains illegal is an important message from society and has already brought the prevalence of FGM down in Kenya, but more work needs to be done to change attitudes, which this debate only illustrates too well. Our partners on the ground fully support the legislation and are absolutely convinced FGM must remain illegal in order to protect women from violence.”