This Kenyan girl escaped FGM by community action but are laws needed?
Photo: Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures/ActionAid
Do laws actually work to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)? Listening to the Honourable Jebii Kilimo, Assistant Minister for Co-operative Development and Marketing in Kenya, at ActionAid International’s panel at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I would have to say yes.
Chair of the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association, Linah talked about the passage of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Bill through Kenyan parliament which took place on 7 October 2011:
Women of Kenya got their freedom when we put it into law that FGM is prohibited.
Linah has been unrelenting in the fight against FGM, this being the first “monster” that she wanted to destroy when she entered parliament in 2003. What was clear when I listened to her, speaking alongside Phyllis Kimba from the National Association for Harmful and Traditional Practices, ActionAid’s partner in Liberia, was how much FGM is more than just about the “girl child”. FGM means painful sex for women victims. FGM means complicated child birth. Banning FGM says that a woman’s body is her own and puts on paper that a woman has a right to control her own body.
Moderating the panel, I felt push back from some audience members. Is a law too directive? Shouldn’t change be more about elders in communities deciding that they want the practice to stop? Shouldn’t it be about mothers saying no when their daughter comes to an age when FGM is normally performed? How is a law actually implemented? If the whole community knows, doesn’t this mean that the whole community is guilty?
I would argue that we need both legal and community change and that both act together to foster long-term behavioural change that will see an end to the practice. A law banning FGM is a powerful way of creating social change, by showing that the world itself is changing, by showing that “culture” cannot trump women’s rights and by telling a community, a country or the world that a government has made a violence-free world for women an unequivocal goal.