Female circumcision in Samburu, Kenya: where culture is above the law

How do you help people who don’t think their rights are being violated? KC Sidi Sarro reports on female circumcision in Samburu, in the Rift Valley, northern Kenya.

It is a land which has been forgotten by modernity and urbanization. It is a land where men have the ultimate and final word; where gender imbalance is the order of the day. It is a land that has stopped moving with the rest of Kenya where everything is on a fast track. In this land, culture is above the law, cattle rustling and raids are the norm and livestock is the main source of livelihood, the main survival of the inhabitants of this land.

In this land, which is rich in culture and natural resources (when it rains), human rights are infringed everyday. But people are unaware they are being denied their rights because to them, it is normal: it is what has been before them, it is what it is, and it is what will be after them.

This is a land of the Samburu in the Rift Valley, northern Kenya. Here, girls as young as seven-years-old are sexually active and sometimes with their parents’ blessings. In this land, girls get circumcised anytime after reaching 10-years-of-age, a brutal yet culturally important rite of passage. In this beautiful land, the ‘female cut’ determines maturity in girls after which the next ‘stage of honor’ is forced marriage and motherhood.

As young Morans [warriors] are not allowed to have sexual intercourse with circumcised girls they seek out younger girls who are not circumcised to quench their sexual desires. Young girls are not allowed to say no to a Moran let alone look him in the eye, something which goes for all women. When a Moran fancies a girl, he beads her – meaning he gives her a gift of beads, which she wears and which marks her as the Moran’s property. When this happens, the girl’s parents will go an extra mile and build a small manyatta [dwelling] for the girl, which she moves into to provide her and her Moran with privacy whenever the Moran chooses to visit her. A girl can be beaded by more than one Moran and this is a symbol of pride to her. However, once circumcised, the beads come off; the girl is now a ‘young woman’ and will not continue with the Moran.

The possibility of getting pregnant especially when engaging in unprotected and unsafe sex is often very high, thus it is not unusual to see girls as young as nine or ten getting pregnant. When this happens they are forced to undergo abortions. These forced abortions are carried out in the most inhumane and brutal manner and not only result to the death of the foetus but sometimes that of the mother too.

Pregnant girls are given local herbs which they drink to expel the pregnancy. Sometimes, if the foetus is breathing when it is expelled or if it is almost full term and born alive it is given a mixture of tobacco and water to drink which kills it. Alternatively, young girls in their first and second trimester are ‘kneed’ to remove the foetus. Here, a girl lies down and an older woman presses the girl’s tummy with her knee in strategic places. It is like kicking someone on the stomach and it is very painful. This procedure can not only result to haemorrhaging but also death to the young girl.

In very rare instances a girl can be allowed to give birth. If she gives birth to a boy it will be killed by being given the tobacco mixture to drink. A girl can sometimes be left to live because it will earn the family dowry. A Moran can sometime intervene and ask to marry the girl and when this happens, the girl undergoes female circumcision and is then married off to the Moran when she gives birth.

To these girls, anyone who is not circumcised is looked down upon and considered a child despite her age. Surprisingly, although they are aware of the dangers and risks associated with female circumcision and forced marriage, they do not see their rights as being infringed. When told that these actions are against the laws of the land they argue otherwise, because to them the only law they follow is their cultural law, traditions and beliefs.

Are they aware of HIV? Yes, they know. But they have been told it only affects uncircumcised girls. They are aware and they attest to the fact that the female circumcision procedure is painful but they are not aware that it can cause lifelong problems such as fistula, complicated pregnancies and other related health problem. Nevertheless, traditionally many do welcome it as a culturally sanctioned rite of passage into womanhood

The law in Kenya is very clear in that it prohibits girls from obtaining circumcision. However, in many communities these practices continue in broad daylight. In marginalised areas such as some parts of Samburu, female circumcision is done with the blessing of local administrators who also have their girls cut. But Section 14 of the Children’s’ Act of 2001 directly states: “No person shall subject a child to female circumcision, early marriage or other cultural rites, customs or traditional practices that are likely to negatively affect the child’s life, health, social welfare, dignity or physical or psychological development.”

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2011 also prohibits the ‘female cut’. It provides that anyone found practicing female circumcision and convicted will be sent to jail for seven years or fined 500,000 Kenyan shillings (KShs) [US $6,000]. Anyone who causes death in the process of carrying out female circumcision will be liable to life imprisonment. Those convicted of aiding, abetting or carrying out female circumcision will be liable to imprisonment for a term of between three and seven years or a fine of between KShs 100,000 and 500,000.

The question is how do you help people who don’t think their rights are being violated? How do you assist people who don’t think their rights are being infringed upon and are very comfortable with how things are, because to them that is the norm? It is sad but the government has a duty to ensure that these communities are sensitized against the dangers of these brutal, harmful and old traditions and beliefs. Strict action should be taken against people who go contrary to the laws of the land to serve as an example. It is sad to note that some of these practices are done under the supervision of local administration officers. How then will people change if the government asks people not to circumcise their girls and the area chiefs take their children for the same?


  • comment-avatar
    Laila 6 years

    Thanks for sharing this article. Very right indeed.

  • comment-avatar
    Jeff Lekupe 6 years

    It’s a twenty first century phenomenon which should not be tolerated. Being a journalist in this region and further a son of this region, it is our obligation to pressure through media to see the end to this dangerous vice.
    The network should be vibrant and authenticate the finding and compel forces…..

  • comment-avatar
    nasieku 6 years

    Thanks very much for sharing this. I think it is about time the educated in the community to come together and say no to this.

  • comment-avatar
    Sandy Tatham 5 years

    A sensitive article and very enlightening to a newcomer to your beautiful land. The Samburu people are wonderful and the negative human rights aspects are well hidden from those who do not take the time to explore. I admire your efforts to create awareness and in advocating change.

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    Hilary Burrage 4 years

    Thank you for exposing this horrific situation.

    Some readers may like to sign in support of the *Statement on FGM* which we as a group of #NoFGM-activists from around the world have recently launched:

    http://www.statementonfgm.com .

    Hopefully it’s helpful to see that people from a wide range of backgrounds all agree that these truly grim practices must stop, now.

  • comment-avatar

    Our nonprofit is addressing this very harmful practice and aims to eradicate it once and for all. We sponsor girls’ education at primary and secondary school levels. Parents/guardians must agree not to circumcise. http://www.pastoralist-child-foundation.org

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    Samuel Leadismo 4 years

    We are working very hard to eradicate Fgm ,early force marriage and promote girl child education.We are hoping it will change and girls will exercise their rights.http://ww.pastoralist-child-foundation.org

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    Domi Kamash 3 years

    I have worked In Samburu for more than 15 years and this practice is too much rooted in their culture that even the educated practice it. So many NGO’s have been formed to eliminate it but they are out to mint money and make themselves rich.

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    anonymous 3 years

    this is there culture why don’t you have people in their colonies tell them the dangers and not just go in guns a blazing tell them many cultures are suffering from when the white people have showed up and forced them to change be considerate

  • comment-avatar

    thank you very much for the article. it has helped me to learn much about fgm. i am currently doing a research on fgm among the maasai

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    Mrs. Dawn Stalker 2 years

    All FGM is abuse toward the future woman of Kenya. We are praying for their rescue. No one child desires to be grown up that fast, held against their will to live in such a darkness.