23 April 2014

Kenya: Two to Be Charged With Murder After Kenyan FGM Victim Dies

Two guardians and a circumciser will be charged with murder in a landmark case in Kenya after a Maasai girl bled to death following Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Rehema Lesale, 13, died on April 14 after undergoing FGM in a remote part of Kajiado County, south of the capital, Nairobi. Her body was found lying in a pool of blood at her homestead and her grave had already been dug.

"We are in court today. The guardians are going to be charged with murder," Christine Nanjala, head of Kenya's one-month-old anti-FGM prosecution unit, told Thomson Reuters Foundation on the phone from Kajiado on Wednesday.

"We are transferring the case to our office in Machakos [High Court] because the court in Kajiado does not have jurisdiction to do any murder trials."

Lesale was living with her guardians, who were her sister and her brother-in-law.

"The circumciser who did it is still at large," said Nanjala. "She's still being looked for. Hopefully we will get her soon."

Dusty, sprawling Kajiado County, which sits between Nairobi and the Tanzanian border, is the traditional homeland of Kenya's Maasai community. Some 73 percent of Maasai women and girls are circumcised, according to government statistics.

FGM or female circumcision involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. It can cause haemorrhage, shock, complications in childbirth, fistula and severe pain during sexual intercourse. It can also lead to depression and anxiety.

LIFE IMPRISONMENT

Around 27 percent of Kenyan women and girls have been circumcised, with the highest rates among the Somali, Kisii and Maasai communities.

FGM is usually carried out during school holidays. Afterwards, the girls are regarded as women and are usually taken out of school, married and become mothers.

Kenya stepped up its fight against FGM by creating the anti-FGM Board in December, headed by Linah Kilimo, a prominent campaigner against the practice. Kilimo, a former member of parliament, ran away from FGM as a child and lobbied for parliament to pass the 2011 Prohibition of FGM Act.

While the 2011 law provides for life imprisonment when a girl dies from FGM and a minimum sentence of three years for other offences related to FGM, little effort was put into implementing it until the anti-FGM Board was set up.

Since 2011, 71 FGM cases have been taken to court, according to police statistics, resulting in 16 convictions. Almost half the cases are still pending.

The stiffest FGM-related sentence to have been handed out so far was in 2010, when a father and a circumciser were jailed for 10 years for manslaughter after his 12-year-old daughter, Sasiano Nchoe, bled to death.

In its first few weeks, the anti-FGM prosecution unit has already brought several cases to court involving parents, circumcisers and even a chief who failed to report FGM.

On Tuesday, a father was charged with circumcising his pregnant14-year-old daughter and trying to circumcise his three other daughters, aged between 12 and 14. The man's two wives and the circumciser were also charged.

ENCOURAGING PROGRESS

"It's very encouraging," said Faiza Mohamed, executive director of the Kenya office of Equality Now, which promotes women's rights. "It's showing communities that the government now means business and FGM will not be tolerated."

The unit, which has 20 prosecutors across the country, plans to visit FGM-prone areas to teach communities about the law and bring cases to court.

It is essential to have prosecutors on the ground to respond quickly. In Lesale's case, the team arrived just before she was buried.

"The minute you die, the next thing is they dig a grave and bury you together with your clothes, photos and everything that concerns you," said Nanjala. "There's no evidence of you ever again."

One of the unit's main targets is the women who carry out the circumcisions, carrying on a profession that is usually passed down from mother to daughter, with payment averaging about 1,000 Kenya Shillings ($11) per girl cut, Mohamed said.

Nanjala has asked all the chiefs in the Kajiado to identify circumcisers in their area. They will be bonded to keep the peace, which means that they are not allowed to undertake FGM and must report to the police station each month.

If any girls are found to have been cut, the circumcisers will be questioned.

"My ideal outcome is the end of this practice," said Nanjala. "Instil the fear of God, let this practice subside, let it just die."

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