Nairobi — "I think that even for the decision of female circumcision, a woman can make that decision. And once she has made that decision, she should be able to access the best medical care to have it done."
A Kenyan doctor is seeking to legalise female genital mutilation (FGM), arguing that a ban on the internationally condemned practice is unconstitutional and that adult women should be allowed to do what they want with their bodies.
Tatu Kamau filed a petition in the Machakos High Court in eastern Kenya on Wednesday claiming that women are being harassed and arrested for undergoing FGM.
"If women can decide to drink, to smoke, women can join the army, women can do all sorts of things that might bring them harm or injury, and yet they are allowed to make that decision," Kamau told Kenya Television News (KTN).
"I think that even for the decision of female circumcision, a woman can make that decision. And once she has made that decision, she should be able to access the best medical care to have it done."
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause a host of serious health problems, say health experts.
The ancient ritual - practised in at least 27 African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East - is usually carried out by traditional cutters, often using unsterilised blades or knives.
In some cases, girls can bleed to death or die from infections. FGM can also cause fatal childbirth complications later in life, add health experts.
Kenya outlawed the practice in 2011, but it continues as communities believe it is necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters' marriage prospects. One in five women and girls between 15 and 49 years in Kenya have undergone FGM, says the United Nations.
Kamau's petition has sparked criticism from women's rights campaigners who said overturning the ban would be a regressive step, setting back decades of gains made to improve the sexual and reproductive health of Kenya's women and girls.
"I actually think it's one of the worst ideas I've ever heard, and it's even more shocking that it is coming from a medical doctor," said Njoki Njehu from the charity Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Center.
"Everything we know about FGM is that it has no benefit and causes a great deal of harm. We also know the majority of those who undergo FGM are young girls, not adults. We - all women's rights groups - are ready to fight this if it comes to that."
The petition is expected to heard by the court on Feb. 26.
- Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell