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Advocacy good, but legal action must be supported in fight against FGM

There seems to be reinvigorated efforts across the world towards increasing gender equality and promotion of universal acceptance of female sexual and reproductive rights.

Most efforts are bandied around eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), cutting FGM, supporting decision making in contraceptive usage, raising awareness of female sexual rights and elimination of forced marriages.

For many rural Kenyan communities, more so for traditional marginalised districts decision making around sexual, marital and family matters are still firmly in the hands of men.

In such places a woman has no right to even decide if she wants to use contraceptives or family planning methods. Quite unfortunate that in the 21st century a man decides for a woman.

I recently had a sad interaction with a 15- year-old mother shortly after giving birth. The delivery was not without attendant complications arising out of FGM/C meted on her to usher her into ‘adulthood’. Upon enquiring how she felt on joining motherhood, she replied, “A child has given birth to a child”.

Her words echo the gravity of the problem intimating the emotional, psychological and physical effects of skewed sexual and reproductive rights cause.

Betrothed at just 14 years soon after facing the cut, she is amongst many girls forced to hurriedly become adults. By all parameters she was still a child yet now she has responsibilities of taking care of not just the husband but a baby and the extended family as well.

Across many rural health facilities in marginalised communities, health workers meet daily with such mothers.

Data from the UNFPA estimates that by 2020, 15 million girls will have faced the cut. Most if not all will have been forced to it and will be followed soon afterwards into marriage usually with older men and not of their choice.

From a health point of view FGM/C, lack of say in contraceptive usage, forced and early marriages place the victims at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/Aids and chronic obstetric complications.

The often missed point is the mental health aspect of such situations, both the emotional and psychological components.

The UNFPA and similar bodies fighting such vices rightly place an emphasis on advocacy and behaviour change campaigns. This approach however falls shy of the intended targets as the cultural values are so strongly engrained in some of the communities as to be stopped merely by education.

Working in such a remote community where such programmes are working, a glaring fact is obviously the lack of legal follow through. This makes many of such programmes not work because unless strong legal action is taken against the perpetrators the education part will be ignored.

Fortunately a few organisations are now taking the judicial route by initiating and supporting victims take legal actions against their offender. However views on culpability amongst communities mean many such cases never see the daylight.

Most cases are solved at home by elders with a small fine that lightly absolves the perpetrators leaving the victim’s quest for justice unmet. It would be interesting to have data showing the number of offenders convicted for such offences.

The disconnect between advocacy groups and those pursuing the legal routes means little is to be shown for all our efforts.

Fortunately, this is now shifting and most projects seem to now also focus on the reproductive and sexual health rights of affected target groups.

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