Female circumcision, known as female genital mutilation, is illegal in Kenya but is still being forced on young girls in some areas. Cases increased after schools closed due to the pandemic, but one survivor is fighting the practice in an ethnic Somali community.
Twenty-three-year-old Yasmeen Mohammed volunteers with Silver Lining Kenya, an organization that champions the rights of young girls and women in Kenya’s Garissa County.
Mohammed says her focus is on eradicating the illegal and harmful practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.
“As someone who has gone through the act, I know how harmful this is,” she said.
She and other activists have joined the government’s drive to end cases of female genital mutilation.
The number of FGM cases jumped after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, particularly in Somali communities in Garissa. Mohammed says the long closure of schools was detrimental to the fight against FGM.
“During COVID, it was a moment of staying together, so that was when parents would realize that these children are growing,” she said. “So, for the ones who were young, there is need for them to go through the cut. For the ones who are going through puberty is when you see, ‘Oh, this one is supposed to be married.'”
The practice of FGM is illegal in Kenya, with the government pledging to eradicate it by the end of 2022, eight years ahead of the global deadline of 2030.
Maka Kassim, a community leader involved in rescuing girls from the practice, says it still thrives in places like Garissa because of strong cultural and religious beliefs.
“The Somali culture believes, they believe that a girl who doesn’t go through the cut, she is like someone who is not clean, she is (an) unclean person,” Kassim said. “They also believe that a girl who doesn’t go through the cut, she is also not clean to do the prayers.”
The Kenyan government’s anti-FGM board is leading the campaign against the harmful practice.
The board’s CEO, Bernadette Loloju, says keeping schools open is critical to combating the problem, but there are other challenges, too.
“The only big challenge we have is that girls are being taken for the cut at a younger age, when they don’t understand what has happened to them,” she said. “So, the communities are really coming up with new ways of evading the law.”
Still, Kenyan officials say they are hopeful efforts by the government and advocates for the girls will keep the country on track to bring the practice to an end.