GREENSBORO, North Carolina — The U.N.-supported Kenyan helpline first started to assist young girls who are going through the traditional yet forbidden practice of genital mutilation. It has since evolved to help anyone experiencing gender-based violence in Kenya.
Female Genital Mutilation: What Is It?
Female genital mutilation (F.G.M.) is a violating procedure that involves the removal of the external female genitalia. Ceremonial leaders usually conduct the procedure on girls younger than 15. Also known as female circumcision, many communities regard the operation as a rite of passage into womanhood. However, leaders and parents often take forceful measures to operate on these young girls, violating their right to make decisions about their own bodies and health. In addition to heightened chances of experiencing difficulties during childbirth, the risk of infection and bleeding to death are common with the procedure as well.
According to Plan International, a humanitarian organization working to advance the rights for young women and children, “21% of women admit that they have undergone the painful procedure,” and “11% of women ages 15 to 19 are circumcised, whereas more than 40% of women ages 45 to 49 years are.”
This practice happens for many different reasons, including:
To ‘save’ a girl for marriage
A belief in controlling female sexuality
Loose law enforcement to protect these girls
Introduction of Hotline Gives Hope
Healthcare Assistance Kenya (H.A.K.), with the help of U.N. Women, established a national helpline for victims of gender-based violence in 2010. Since then, it has provided vital support for girls and women who experience abuse. F.G.M. is just one of the reasons people call the helpline. Others include assault, rape, child neglect and defilement, child marriage and much more. Trained counselors are on the line 24 hours a day assisting callers until help arrives. Counselors arrange for health care, security, legal aid and can give psychosocial support to callers in need.
The number of cases of gender-based violence in Kenya rose “from 86 in February to more than 1,100 in June of this year,” due to the adverse effects of the pandemic. Although primarily women use the hotline, approximately one-third of callers are men, reporting psychological abuse from their families that harass them for being unable to provide. In response to the sudden uptick in domestic abuse, U.N. Women increased the funding to H.A.K. when COVID-19 first hit, “saving more lives, supporting more survivors and their families through recovery, and increasing access to justice.”
H.A.K.’s commitment to connecting survivors with health and law enforcement is evident. However, more ought to be done to raise awareness of sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya, as it is “one of Kenya’s biggest human rights challenges.” Many victims still holding on to traditional cultural beliefs do not understand their rights or the gravity of their situation. Therefore, educational tools can provide them with information they might not have been receiving previously.
Future Plans in the Making
In 2019, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta made the pledge to end F.G.M. by 2022 during a global conference for sexual and reproductive health. He also vowed to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence in Kenya by 2030. Many human rights activists think this goal is unrealistic “due to insecurity and high prevalence rates in some parts of the eastern African nation.” For example, although F.G.M. was criminalized in 2011, some communities believe this traditional practice is necessary. Local conflicts also persist in many of these areas, impeding safe accessibility and the ability to enforce these laws. As such, these communities continue the practices with little challenge.
These goals provide hope for many young girls and women who worry about their rights being infringed upon every day. However, the illegal practice of F.G.M. has seen a recent resurgence, making clear the lack of anti-gender-based violence law enforcement, despite President Kenyatta’s promise. Enforcing these policies does, admittedly, involve many risks. However, that makes the need for accountability towards President Kenyatta and global leaders all the more crucial. Worsening situations such as this indicate that many roadblocks remain on the path to ending domestic abuse. Therefore, persistence to end all gender-based violence, like the establishment of H.A.K.’s helpline, must be a top priority.
– Natalie Whitmeyer