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‘Every chemist has a backroom’: the rise of secret FGM in Kenya

In Kisii town, south-west Kenya, a rundown roadside building houses a pharmacy. Like many others in the area, the pharmacy doubles as a clinic.

Lilian Kemunto (not her real name), a former surgical nurse, set it up after she retired in 2018. She mainly does health check-ups but has also offered female genital mutilation (FGM) services on request.

Kemunto has performed cuts since the 90s, after receiving training in basic surgical techniques from male colleagues in the local hospital where she worked. She would do the cuts in the hospital at night, but it was risky, she says, because management didn’t approve. “They would tell us: ‘Just do it, but if you’re caught, you’re on your own.’”

She preferred cutting girls in a private home, in the middle of the night, saying it was much easier: “By 6am, the girls are back in their own homes, like nothing happened.”

In Kisii county, medicalisation is standard. Two out of three cases of cutting are performed by health practitioners, in contrast to much of the country, where 70% of FGM cases are performed by traditional practitioners.

Kemunto says she tries to avoid mishaps, and at a minimum requires some anaesthesia, a surgical blade, sterile towels, and cleaning solution to proceed.

She also claims to use a non-invasive procedure: a small incision of the clitoris that practitioners call a “signature”. Kisii’s FGM practice is considered less severe than other areas, and anti-FGM campaigners are concerned that there’s a growing acceptance of the practice as more safe, hygienic and cosmetic.

FGM rates in Kenya have gone down significantly over the past decade. The country passed strong laws in 2011, imposed hefty fines on practitioners, and stepped up surveillance and enforcement. But medicalisation is posing a new challenge for the east African nation, which has a 15% medicalisation rate: one of the highest in Africa.

Earlier this month, Kenyan president William Ruto backed the country’s chief justice who said that FGM “should not be a conversation we are having in Kenya in the 21st century”, and reiterated his administration’s commitment to eradicating the practice.

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Source: The Guardian, 15 December 2022


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