Climate Change and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Hidden Connection Impacting Vulnerable Communities in Kenya

by Amref Health Africa

Climate change remains a critical global issue that relentlessly exerts profound and far-reaching effects on the environment and societies. One of the lesser-known effects of climate change is its contribution to the perpetuation of Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting (FGM/C), a harmful traditional practice that affects at least 200 million girls and women worldwide.  

While this retrogressive practice is commonly known to be deeply rooted in cultural and social norms, climate change is also exacerbating its state through prolonged drought periods, making it harder for vulnerable communities to abandon FGM/C, which is internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, with no health benefits.  

In Kenya, the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) region has endured three severe droughts in the last decade (2010-2011, 2016-2017, and 2020-2022), and the current drought has been the most severe and longest, with widespread livelihood losses and massive displacement of populations. Unfortunately, the increasing intensity and the shorter cycles between droughts are amplifying the vulnerability of communities and their ability to cope. (AHN, 2022). 

These extended droughts put enormous strain on the economy and social life, leading to worsening livelihoods and abject poverty due to livestock loss and crop failure. In some communities, the diminished livelihoods lead to the continuation of FGM/C, where girls in their early adolescence undergo the cut, which transitions them from girlhood to womanhood, and they are, from there onwards, deemed ready to be married off in exchange for a bride price that helps their families survive through the atrocities of prolonged droughts. 

After a girl has undergone the cut, it often signifies the end of her education and future career progression. This leaves her vulnerable to teenage pregnancies, child marriage, dropping out of school, and various health risks such as complications in childbirth and an increased risk of newborn deaths. 

According to UNICEF’s 2020 report on The Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, 4 million girls and women in Kenya have undergone FGM, and 21% of them aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to the practice. Girls and women who live in rural areas, hail from poor households, have a lesser education or identify as Muslims were more likely to undergo FGM. 

The report further shows that the FGM practice is highly concentrated in the North Eastern region of the country, and it is prevalent in certain ethnic groups (Somali, Samburu, Kisii, and Maasai) countrywide. It highlights the considerable variation in the age at which FGM is performed in various ethnic groups. Among Somalis, FGM is primarily done before age 10, while in other groups, it is mainly done after age 10 or later. Traditional practitioners usually perform FGM in Kenya, 7 times out of 10. However, medical personnel are also sometimes responsible for the practice, especially among the Kisii. 

A case study dubbed Intersections between climate change and female genital mutilation among the Maasai of Kajiado County, Kenya further revealed that women and girls in the Maasai community are highly threatened by the drought caused by climate change issues. These women and girls are responsible for house chores in their families, such as fetching water from far distances, which makes it hard for them to stay in school. Also, since livestock is the primary source of wealth, livelihood, and status, their women and girls are highly susceptible to early marriages, which come with a bride price that is beneficial to their family’s economic status and survival during the drought. Although these practices are adaptation strategies for coping with climate change, they contribute to the widening of gender inequalities and further disempowerment of women and girls.  

Amref Health Africa has played a vital role in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting (FGM/C) by implementing a project called ARP-WASH for the Maasai communities in Kajiado County, for more than a decade. The project aims to improve Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) among adolescent girls and women of reproductive age in Kajiado County through integrated Community-Led Alternative Rites of Passage (CL-ARP) and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) interventions. 

WASH is given priority in the project as it is considered an entry point to combat FGM/C, Menstrual Hygiene Maintenance (MHM), teenage pregnancy, and early child and forced marriage (ECFM). This project facilitates access to clean water at nearby communal water points for the communities, which somewhat lessens the drought persistence burden caused by climate change.  

Notably, the CL-ARP and WASH interventions have resulted in delayed marriages, better school retention and completion, and reduced teenage pregnancies which have contributed to the decline in FGM/C prevalence in the county; since communities are more sensitized on the harms and effects of the practice.  

We must recognize the intersectionality between climate change and harmful traditional practices like FGM/C, to create a safer and more equitable world for all women and girls. This means addressing the root causes of FGM/C while also taking action to mitigate the effects of climate change in the affected communities. Supporting and empowering vulnerable communities through education, awareness campaigns and providing resources to help them adapt to the challenges posed by climate change contributes to the abandonment of harmful practices. 

It is our collective responsibility to take action and create a better future for all; we cannot stand idly by while climate change worsens the plight of women and girls around the world. It is crucial to embrace community-driven interventions through social and behaviour change approaches that narrow gender inequality and eventually lead to the complete eradication of FGM/C practice in Kenya to help women and girls achieve their full potential in their communities.

Author: Kendra Atenya, Communications Intern, Amref Health Africa in Kenya.

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