How did female MPs in Kenya convince colleagues to support anti-FGM laws?

May 17, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

This post was first published on the Africa at LSE blog

The creation of an anti-female genital mutilation law in Kenya shows how men can become supportive of issues that affect women, writes Regina Mwatha.

While it may not always seem like men are supportive of women’s agendas, there are three pertinent things to consider when discussing men’s thinking on these issues. First, they need to know and fully understand what the issue is. Second, they know what their role in that issue is. And third, they can see how they benefit in resolving the issue. The problem occurs when it is not clear to them what women want.

In Kenya, male legislators supported women in passing a law which makes female genital mutilation (FGM) illegal in Kenya.

By 2008, there were many questions among civil society, policymakers and women politicians, as to why FGM continued with such abundance in Kenya. The chiefs who were expected to identify those committing this act stated they needed a law making the FGM illegal to do so.

Around the same time, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women committee urged Kenya to either implement existing legislation prohibiting the practice of female genital mutilation or adopt legislation, to eliminate this practice and other harmful traditional practices for all women. High-level conversations were also ignited by the then National Commission on Gender and Development and the Ministry for Gender, Children and Social Affairs and it was agreed that something needed to be done. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also agreed to support the process. At the time, Kenya had 12 women in parliament.

Planning and strategizing

Early women-led high-level consultations concluded that it was critical for parliament to pass legislation making FGM illegal. The National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC) approached two women parliamentarians from communities that undertake FGM. Both Hon Sophia Abdi Noor and Hon. Jebii Kilimo were very passionate about the ending of FGM. They brought other women into parliament to plan and strategize. These were usually meetings held very early, on cold mornings and were informal and consultative. The women parliamentarians proposed a strategy where they identified which men were likely to support an anti-FGM bill, which ones could mellow after being talked to and which ones were hard to get. It was also agreed that it would be necessary to host several meetings to create awareness among the male legislators on what the problem was and how the women wanted the men to support them.

Armed with this data, 12 women in parliament allocated themselves homework to speak to the men. The Minister for Gender led the process supported by the NCGD and the other 11 women in parliament.

In the meantime, the Gender Commission organised awareness meetings with men from the communities where FGM is prevalent, and with those from communities where the practice was not conducted. The objective was to let them know what was happening to their “daughters” and that for this to stop they needed to pass the law making FGM Illegal in Kenya.

The problem was that neither the NCGD nor the Ministry for Gender had adequate resources for these meetings. The UNFPA stepped in to fund the meetings and the consultant.  It was also agreed that since the women parliamentarians knew how best to deal with their male colleagues these meetings would be led by the women parliamentarians and the Gender Commission would provide data to support their lobbying.

Addressing the problem together

The first awareness creation workshop was held in Naivasha, about 55 miles northwest of Nairobi. Dr Jaldesa Guyo an Obstetrician gynaecologist took a team of about 30 MPs, including four women members of parliament and the Minister for Gender. Dr Guyo’s presentation vividly showed the participants what goes on in FGM, including the four types of cuts and the dangers related to FGM. Hon Sophia Abdinoor stood and said “Ladies and gentlemen my fellow Hon Members that is what is happening to your daughters. It already happened to us your sisters and mothers, we are now busy doing it to your daughters. The duty to save your daughters lies in your hands. Give us the law to stop us from doing this.” The men were angry when they spoke. They said they had always been told it was a small prick so that blood could flow.

Three more sittings of awareness creation were carried out in Mombasa and again in Naivasha. In one of the meetings, the Member of parliament from Mt. Elgon, Hon. Fred Kapondi stated he would take the bill to parliament, even if he lost his seat as a result. He in fact did take the bill through parliament. It is one of the few bills that never faced any opposition in any of its three readings. Hon. Ekwe Ethuro seconded the motion, arguing that it is important for men from communities that do not practice FGM to stand with their sisters from the communities that practice.

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed into law in 2011. The 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey showed a national decline in the practice of FGM, dropping from 21 per cent in 2014 to 15 per cent in 2022.

This is one of many incidences where men have supported women’s agenda at the highest level of decision making, once they fully understood what was at stake and what was in it for them. It can be used as a case study for other groups across the continent on how they can go about making real change in their communities.

Regina Mwatha is a scholar and researcher at Kenyatta University in the Department of Sociology, Gender and Development Studies. She holds a PhD from the University of Reading. She is currently the project leader of the Kenyatta University Women’s Economic Empowerment Hub (KU -WEE -HUB), where she is providing leadership on 12 research projects whose common goal is to generate WEE and gender related data for policy advocacy in Kenya.

May 17, 2024
Duncan Green


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