KURIA COMMUNITY, Kenya – In Kenya’s southwest corner, where a web of dirt roads weaves through green hills dotted with cattle and thatched huts, lies one of the country’s poorest and most marginalized communities.
The Kuria are one of Kenya’s lesser-known ethnic groups. Some 250,000 people quietly attempt to eke out a living in this remote region tucked away near the Tanzanian border.
But one of the tribe’s most distinctive characteristics has attracted the attention of outsiders: 96 percent of Kuria women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), one of the highest rates in the country. In Kuria, the cut is seen as an important ritual for a girl’s transition into womanhood, the notion behind it being that it will make her a faithful wife by reducing her sexual desire.
While the FGM rate among some ethnic groups in Kenya is declining, the Kuria people have staunchly resisted change. One reason for this, according to activists trying to reverse the FGM trend in Kenya, is money.
Parents pay between 500 and 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($5 to $10) for their daughters to be circumcised, a procedure performed by a female cutter. Half of the fee goes to a clan of elders, an exclusively male group that decides on cultural events and traditions. The elders choose if and when the cutting season for FGM goes ahead and, for them, the tradition has come to signify an opportunity to significantly boost their annual income.
Research by the Education Center for the Advancement of Women (ECAW) found that each clan member receives up to 25,000 shillings ($250) every cutting season, as well as gifts of alcohol and food from the families of girls being cut. For these men, who earn very little as farmers, especially following the departure of major cash crop companies in the last decade, there is little incentive to stop FGM.
“They complain they don’t have an alternative source of income. They get a lot of money during the season,” says ECAW program officer Cess Mugo. “One clan of elders said it was a way of appeasing ancestors; others didn’t want to be the ones who break with tradition. But money is a big issue.”
Several community elders told ECAW they would end FGM if the government compensated them for the loss of income. “The person who does the cut gets the money, but the elders are given a small amount each season, like 500 shillings ($5),” says David Mwita, an elder from the Nyabasi clan, one of four Kuria clans, each with around 30 members. “We have no problem with stopping cutting, but the government should give money to us old men each month.”
When asked earlier this year, Nyabasi clan elders said they would cancel the cutting season, because of government pressure to end the practice. “Before, we didn’t know about the dangers of FGM. We have been taught about the difficulty of giving birth and the pain that the girl [would be] in. It is coming to an end,” said Wilson Sika, another Nyabasi elder.
But more recently, others in the community have said elders were hiding the fact that girls would be cut this year because they are afraid of getting into trouble with authorities.
“The clan says the cutting season is going ahead,” said one woman, who asked not to be named. “I have sent my three daughters to Nairobi to be with their father. I don’t want them to be cut.”
According to Mugo, ECAW has had trouble with clan elders hiding the true extent of FGM in the past.
“It was the same the last cutting season,” she says. “They told us they would not cut the girls, but it was one of the worst years ever in this area for FGM.”
ECAW, funded by the U.K.-based education charity Feed the Minds, is one of the few organizations still working in Kuria on FGM projects. There used to be more, but many have left, likely due to frustration over a lack of results, says Mugo. “Cutting season is very unpredictable,” she says. “You feel you have done enough work, then comes the season and it is like you never stepped foot there.”
Although Kenya introduced robust anti-FGM legislation in 2011, with possible jail sentences for anyone aiding the practice, activists say FGM is just going underground. “The law has made everything a bit more difficult,” says Mugo. “People are doing the cutting at night and in secret places.”
Groups like ECAW run education programs for families, teaching them about the dangers of FGM and challenging the stigmas around uncut girls, who are traditionally ostracized from society and find it hard to marry. ECAW also works on confidence-building for parents and other family members who are against FGM, so they feel empowered to disobey orders from clan elders.
“[Clan elders] intimidate people and are feared,” says Mugo. “We are trying to make the community understand they shouldn’t allow someone to dictate what they do with their children.”
Despite the reluctance among elders to end the practice, activists say they see positive signs that attitudes are gradually changing, especially among younger generations. Previously, most fathers felt compelled to get their daughters cut because they would fetch a higher dowry. But now, in the wake of various awareness campaigns, some opponents of FGM in Kuria say uncut girls are now getting a higher dowry than girls who have undergone FGM.
“My daughter has not been cut,” says Simon Maroa, a teacher and pastor. “When I was young I thought it was important. But with education, I learned it was wrong.”