Embark on a Whole of Society Approach in Tackling Harmful Cultural Practices in Kenya

Kenya enjoys rich and diverse cultures from well over 42 tribes spread over 47 counties. Our diversity comes along with practices that have shaped our societal fabric, including our indigenous knowledge that continues to face threats in the wake of conventional ideologies. While some of the cultural practices have been celebrated for community cohesion, environmental conservation and combating climate change, some have been challenged for their patriarchal norms that suppress individuals’ dignity and analogise them to property. Unfortunately, women and girls bear the brunt of most of these harmful cultural practices. It is equally important to acknowledge the silent suffering of other genders occasioned by such harmful practices, often more psychological than physical and thus less documented.

In a bid to address harmful cultural practices in the country, our lawmakers passed legislation to outlaw certain practices and protect individuals, especially women and girls, from the lifelong effects that follow Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), for instance. This law, among others, was in response to commitments made by Kenya in international and regional instruments such as the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Protocol.

However, these laws and policies tackling harmful cultural practices seem to be piecemeal and don’t holistically deal with the practices in a manner that addresses the unique contextual issues within the communities. For example, the Anti- FGM law and Board could be broadened to address other types of harmful cultural practices that surround FGM/C including beading and child marriage. Other contextual issues surrounding FGM/C include poverty, stigma and social pressures to conform to cultural norms.

In Kenya, reports indicate that the practice is on a downward trajectory, with a decline from 21% to 15% as of 2022. However, conversations with those working in communities indicate that this could be the case because of cross-border FGM/C, which is a trend in East Africa. This necessitates concerted efforts between both government agencies, communities and civil society to develop holistic measures to counter cross-border harmful cultural practices in all their manifestations.

In addition, how to tackle emerging trends in these harmful cultural practices is something to ponder, especially in instances where the survivors engage in self-harming activities to avert the stigma that would befall them. A case example is a community in Marsabit County, where girls aged 14 or less would rather get pregnant in a bid to stop their menses, which is considered embarrassing. Some girls make those extreme choices despite being supplied with sanitary supplies by NGOs working in their areas, noting that even keeping the supplies in the house is an embarrassment. While this begs more questions than answers, it opens our perspectives on what more needs to be done and how innovative our strategies need to evolve in a bid to offer solutions to our societal needs.

As challenging as it may be, the involvement of the elders, boys, men, women, teachers, security agencies, local administration, faith leaders and other key stakeholders needs to continue relentlessly with long-term programs to ensure sustained efforts in holistically tackling harmful cultural practices. Existing laws and policies need to be fully implemented with a coordinated approach. The government must also prioritize budget allocation towards such programs as the Civil Society and other development partners strive to complement. Success stories and strategies need further amplification to bring hope to many who are still trapped in fear of harmful traditions. 

Zaina Kombo is Amnesty International Kenya’s Equality and Anti-Discrimination Campaign Manager and writes in her personal capacity. Email: [email protected]