Rita French: 'Pandemic Heightened Risk Of FGM'

But the UK's Human Rights Ambassador talks about why some "cutters" are now putting down their tools.
Rita French
Rita French

Last November I visited the county of Kajiado in Kenya, a short drive from Nairobi - the first county in Kenya to launch a robust policy designed to end female genital mutilation.

FGM is one of the most extreme examples of gender-based violence around the world. The physical, psychological and emotional impacts of being subjected to FGM last a lifetime.

At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, and more than 45 million more girls are at risk during this decade. Devastatingly, the pandemic has heightened the risk.

I arrived in a village in Kajiado to a warm Maasai welcome of traditional singing and dancing - a community proud to share their story.

I joined a group of older Maasai women who had been the ‘cutters’ performing FGM on women and girls. This was a tradition practised for generations and a source of livelihood for many. They explained to me that they had now downed their tools and committed to joining efforts to end FGM.

So how did this happen? A local programme, funded through the UN, had been established to engage and educate the community about FGM. Importantly, the programme also addressed the need for these women to have alternative sources of income. Today, they make jewellery that I am proudly wearing.

Rita French with Aggie Leina, Director of Kenya’s Anti-FGM Board.
Rita French with Aggie Leina, Director of Kenya’s Anti-FGM Board.

I had the pleasure of meeting Aggie, who is leading conversations with men and women - young and old alike - and changing attitudes towards FGM. Aggie also runs a shelter providing housing and security for 150 girls that have survived FGM. Aggie told me her purpose in life is to end FGM. We owe so much to the brave and inspiring work of community champions like her.

The young women I met in the village appeared more hesitant to express their views. Efforts must continue to empower them to speak up for their rights.

The men, on the other hand, were vocal about their commitment to ending FGM. The older men told me that, whilst they are proud of their culture, they did not want pain and suffering inflicted on their daughters. And I spoke to young men who didn’t want this fate for their future wives: a young generation committed to driving change.

Kajiado County is clearly on the right track to ending FGM. I left the village truly invigorated and hopeful that young girls there will have a very different future.

Rita French and UNFPA Executive Director Monica Ferro in a discussion with Maasai women
Rita French and UNFPA Executive Director Monica Ferro in a discussion with Maasai women
UNFPA Mukiza Mwenzi

Changing the law can help to create the right legal environment to end FGM. Political leadership at the highest level is also key. In Kenya’s case, both exist: the President has made a powerful commitment to end the practice by the end of this year, which is accelerating progress.

But this isn’t enough. Real change will only be achieved when communities are fully engaged and involved. It means listening to everyone and being cognisant of local values. It means taking a holistic approach and offering alternative sources of income where necessary. Ending FGM will require changing hearts and minds. And that’s where community leaders like Aggie come in.

Sunday marks International Day for Zero Tolerance Against Female Genital Mutilation. It fills me with hope that the work being done in Kajiado County represents a powerful model that can be replicated in other parts of Kenya and beyond.

The UK is committed to supporting the UN and the Africa-Led Movement to give women and girls the freedoms they need to succeed.

Rita French is Britain’s Global Ambassador for Human Rights and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva.


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