The Situation in Kenya
The national prevalence rate of FGM in Kenya is 21 percent, down from 27 percent in 2008, and 32 percent in 2003. While this is encouraging progress, the progress is unequal (UNICEF).
Despite declining rates on the national level, FGM remains near-universal among certain ethnic groups, including the Pokot (74 percent), Samburu (86 percent), Kisii (84 percent), and Masaai (78 percent) (Kenya Demographic and Health Survey).
For child marriage, the national average in Kenya is 23%, with 4% of those girls being married off before the age of 15. Roughly 36% of girls who have undergone FGM also undergo early child marriage, with 20% of uncut girls undergoing early child marriage (Population Council).
Child marriage and FGM are at times completely intertwined, but at other times are wholly separate, depending on the cultural norms in different parts of Kenya. For example, in the Western region, the rate of FGM is below 1%, but the prevalence of child marriage is at 28%, whereas for the Masaai and Samburu ethnic groups, the two practices go hand in hand, with FGM being considered a prerequisite for marriage (Population Council).
Girls who undergo FGM are seen as more desirable for marriage and tend to be married off—and taken away from their education—earlier. On the other hand, uncut girls, who are less likely to drop out of school, often face stigma and exclusion.
Root Causes of FGM and Child Marriage
According to the Kenya Big Dream Project 2020 Baseline Study, “the practice of female genital cutting has deep cultural roots and is worsened by the high poverty and illiteracy levels in the community.” Similarly, child marriage has its roots in the same three root causes (PLAN International).
Girls who have higher levels of education are less likely to become child brides, and girls in areas that are rural with low household income are far more at risk of child marriage than their urban or middle-class peers (Kenya Demographic and Health Survey). World Vision, in its partnership with the Upward Bound consultancy, surveyed 873 Kenyan households and found "that high levels of poverty and illiteracy exacerbate the problem of FGM, while an increased household income corresponds with its reduction."
We currently work in West Pokot and Baringo counties, and are in the process of expanding into Samburu, with plans to go into the Maasai lands as funding becomes available.
In evaluating the three main barriers to elimination of FGM and child marriage (extreme poverty, lack of education, and cultural norms), the counties where we work, and the ethnic groups we work with (Pokot and Samburu) have some of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, and FGM in the nation.
The baseline data for the counties we are working in are below:
Sources for chart data: TheCounties.info, West Pokot County Development Plan, Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics, Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, WorldBank, Y-Act Movement, Global Giving
These numbers are staggering. For comparison, the national illiteracy rate of Kenya stands at 18.5% (World Bank). The national rate of FGM is 21% (UNICEF), and the GDP per capita of Kenya is Ksh 207,625 (World Bank).
In order to eliminate these practices, interventions that improve access to quality education, increase opportunities for economic empowerment, and incorporate child protection and voice are required.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has committed to ending FGM during his term, along with committing to end all forms of gender-based violence, including child marriage, by 2030. He believes that ending FGM is essential to empowering girls in Kenya and enabling them to participate fully in the country's national development.
These are ambitious goals and there are strong laws, policies, and investments in infrastructure being developed at a national level to support them. However, in order to be translated into real change on-the-ground, national policies must be paired with evidence-based, scalable grassroots programming that addresses the root causes of FGM and child marriage. Our implementing partners, World Vision and Global Giveback Circle, are expert collaborators in bridging this gap between policy and outcome.
“If we want to achieve our national goals, we have to change and offer our girls opportunities in education to excel.”
“If we look around the world, women are holding high positions and we don’t want to be left behind because of retrogressive cultural activities.”