7 May 2014

Kenya: Trading Days - Commerce in Female Genital Mutilation

FGM is illegal in Kenya, but the practice thrives in many parts of the country. In the north where some of the most horrific forms of FGM are conducted, circumcisers have become millionaires operating on the daughters of wealthy Kenyan migrants to Europe

As the sun sets in the remote border village of Dadajibula and residents take advantage of the cool blowing wind replacing the scorching sun, a group of women use the time to perform the rituals of female circumcision. Villagers in Dadajibula are used to such ceremonies on the Kenya/Somalia border. The ritual involves a group of women working closely with female circumcisers. They sing to glorify the female cut and in praise of the circumcisers who offer the local communities and other customers from the Diaspora a 'great service'.

The ceremony, a 'women only event,' is conducted some few metres away from the village at a traditional clinic. Here a group of women busy themselves with preparation of crude objects to be used in genital cutting while others work on preparation of herbs to be used during and after the operation.

The community of Dadajibula understands that the ritual is not meant for their daughters, who undergo it during school holidays. Locals now talk of increased genital cutting of girls from abroad who are flown in from various developed countries.

'In the past we used to treat FGM as a cultural event and performed it during school holidays, but nowadays circumcision takes place every day due to international demand which has made it commercial', said Habiba Nurdin, a primary school teacher in Dadajibula.

As ululations rent the air and the women sang in praise of the girls lined up to face the knife and their parents, our under cover girl from the village joined the women and the circumciser to witness the activities and relay information for this report.

The elaborate ritual starts with the circumciser joining the women dancers and other aides working on tools and other items. The elderly circumciser checks whether the knives have been properly sharpened. Celebrated female circumciser Mrs Mandeeq Ibrahim is aged 80 years but is still strong. Her aides play the crucial role of wrestling the girls down inside the FGM clinic and holding them tight while she operates on them.

Mandeeq, with over 40 years of experience in mutilating the female organ, approves the ability and strength of her aides but orders the two knives lined up for the cutting to be sharpened further. A bottle is broken and a sharp piece included in the kit to be used in the early morning operation.

The under cover girl in the group said she was shocked to see how the knives were sharpened and for a moment thought it was meant for slaughtering a goat and not for chopping female genitalia.

'I was shocked to see the two knives sharpened for 30 minutes and when they were brought back to the circumciser she only smiled and nodded', she said. From that broken bottle the circumciser picked out two sharp pieces to use, in case she found difficulty with the knives.

At that event a group of twelve girls from developed nations were present in Dadajibula with their parents and the ceremony had been specifically organized for them. The undercover girl joined the women aides in wee hours of morning. The girls' parents were given some orientation on how to encourage their daughters not to panic when they heard loud cries from their fellow candidates. The parents were also encouraged to stay within the traditional clinic where they would later be shown pieces of flesh, the 'dirty' part, chopped off from their daughters' genitalia. They would ululate and celebrate the success of the procedure.

The brutal picture fully emerges when the first girl is innocently shepherded into the dingy traditional clinic made of sticks and dried leaves. The circumciser's aides grab and wrestle the girl down, remove her clothes, hold her legs apart, while others tightly hold her head, neck and hands. The traditional surgeon smiles before hurling some insults in Somali language at the innocent girl. She then slaps her thighs and curses her for moving around with a 'dirty' body organ. The traditional circumciser orders her deputy to hold and press the girl's private part while she figures out how to start the cutting. After some minutes of observation, the circumciser spits into girl's organ and then commences cutting off the clitoris and labia. The sliced and raw surface is stitched together using thorns and a thread.

A shocked cry from the first girl to face the knife rents the air and after some minutes of no help or rescue she collapses due to pain as the circumciser continues with her operation, pulling a thorn and thread together to stitch the raw surface. Other girls get apprehensive but they are encouraged by their parents, surrounded by the hawk-eyed women charged with responsibility of guarding them not to escape.

The undercover girl said she could not bear what she saw and decided to leave the traditional clinic, traumatized and in pain. The circumcision starts from the wee hours of morning and lasts for three hours before the girls are transferred into another makeshift shelter meant to house them while they recuperate.

The newly circumcised girls have their legs tied together and made to sleep on a hide afret drinking camel milk and soup which are believed to contain medicinal elements to heal their wounds quickly.

Some days before the end of the month recuperating girls are allowed to walk within the makeshift shelters, with others walking some distance away from the facility to show that their wounds have healed.

The circumciser told the undercover girl after the painful genital cutting of the twelve girls from Europe that the practice is backed by Somali culture and Islam, which has many followers in northern Kenya. Mandeeq said she charges $100 per candidate and that she is paid by an agent based in Nairobi and not directly by the girl's parents.

'Our work is so organized that I receive information from an agent in Nairobi giving me the list of customers coming to my FGM clinic and when to expect them. I charge $100 per circumcision and I am paid by my agent who collects the payment before the girls reach Dadajibula village'. She said sometimes she gets an extra token from a girl's parents for a job well done.


'I left the female genital cutting business in 1999 after encountering many challenges but I made second debut in the business in 2003 due to a high number of international customers,' said 72-year-old traditional female circumciser Mrs Qali Hassan in Dadaab, northern Kenya.

She has 32 years of work experience in female genital mutilation. Qali was forced out of her business in 1999 by an unreliable market demand as she used to get customers only thrice a year when local schools in Dadaab closed for holidays. She also encountered dwindling numbers of girls brought to her circumcision den due to awareness campaigns against the practice waged by local civil society organisations and religious leaders in Garissa County where Dadaab villages is located.

Qali remember fondly how the practice was lucrative in past years and she used to make good money to sustain her and her grandchildren in Dadaab, besides playing an important role in the local community of conducting sacred cultural services meant to appease the ancestors.

"I used to make good money during school holidays in the past when I could circumcise some 300 girls each month of April, August and December. I charged each girl Sh1,000. At the end of each school holiday I would make some Sh200,000 ' the circumciser said, adding that she used the money to buying goats and to maintain her grandchildren.

Qali remembers that during the genital cutting high season she could make up to Sh600,000 a year as her services were highly sought in Dadaab and neigbouring villages. She was very popular then because of her ways of handling girls undergoing the rite.

'I use to get many customers and making Sh 600,000 annually. I have used the money to build a block house in Dadaab and bought livestock. By 2011, I had 1,000 of goats and ten donkeys meant to offer transport services to local communities at a fee. But the prolonged drought of 2012 decimated my livestock and I have remained with only 50 goats and ten donkeys', said Qali.

People in her village gossiped that she lost her herds because the ancestors were punishing her for abandoning the female cut, alluding to the period between 1999 to 2003. Others accused Qali of stocking herds of livestocks with 'blood money'. They suggested that she repent and retire.

'I was the talk of the town when I lost 950 goats to prolonged drought and all manner of things were said by villagers behind my back. They told me to retire and repent but I listened to none of that as I now only attend to international customers and not their daughters', said Qali.

Today the traditional surgeon registering bustling female genital mutilation business thanks to the new niche of customers with fat wallets from developed nations flying in to seek her services.

'From 2003 I went back to my old trade and serving customers from abroad. Am busy every week attending to customers compared to the past when I was doing business only during school holidays. My new trade is rewarding as I make handsome income every week and used the proceeds for restocking and building houses for my daughters and sons. I have also purchased donkey carts to expand my donkey transport business.'

She handles not less than 10 girls per week. She gets her customers from a well heeled cartel specializing in arranging female genital cut services for Somali migrant community visiting the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Qali uses a solar powered mobile phone to get instructions and business deals from her Nairobi-based cartel operating a female genital mutilation ring of travel agents, drivers and fixers scattered in almost all villages of remote northern Kenya. She is among few people using a mobile phone in the remote villages where use of mobile phone gives one high status.

The circumciser said she has attended to hundreds if not thousands of girls brought from abroad to face the knife at her circumcision den and she cannot know exact number as she kept no records of her customers. She said she plans to use the money she has made from the lucrative business to open a modern circumcision clinic with beds for recuperation, a theatre for performing circumcision, waiting area for groups of girls and sanitary block.

Legal experts and practitioners in northern Kenya state that anti -female genital mutilation law passed by Kenyan Parliament needs to be amended and a clause included requiring that convicted circumcisers forfeit all the movable and unmovable assets.

Executive Director of Wagalla Centre for Peace and Human Rights Mr Adan Garad claimed that the trade has produced millionaire circumcisers. 'International FGM has produced millionaire circumcisers in Northern Kenya and they are acquiring four-wheel drive vehicles, building posh houses in remote villages, using flashy solar phones and buying hundreds of livestock. The current anti-FGM law is silent on forfeiting properties and proceeds made by the circumcisers and something needs to be done so they can be stripped of these ill-gotten wealth and status in the society.'

This article was written with support by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters.

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