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Girls & Women

This Heroic BBC Presenter Rescued a 13-Year-Old Schoolgirl From FGM in Kenya

It was the middle of the night when BBC presenter Kate Humble helped a 13-year-old girl into a waiting car — just hours before the girl was due to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).

Humble was on a visit to the Christian district of Kuria, in south-west Kenya, to film a BBC documentary called Extreme Wives.

She visited during “circumcision season,” and described the atmosphere in the area as being “very tense.”

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But, when local activist and FGM survivor Susan Thomas received a phone call asking for help, Humble decided to join her on the dangerous mission.

They had to pay for an armed guard to protect them, after they had experienced an aggressive response from the community they had questioned earlier in the day.

“She wants to go to school, she’s still young,” Thomas said to Humble as they drove to the arranged pickup point. “That’s why she has called for us to rescue her.”

FGM — a non-medical procedure that deliberately injures a woman or girl’s genital organs — is a real obstacle in girls accessing education.

In Kuria’s neighbouring Narok County, for example, over 500 girls drop out of school every year because of it. The young girl that Humble and Thomas saved will return to her parents when school starts to continue her education. But for thousands in Kenya, and millions more around the world, the cycle of mutilation continues unabated.

As well as being invasive, FGM is a dangerous procedure to undergo. It can cause severe bleeding, sometimes death, as well as complications with urination, sex, and pregnancy in later life.

During the course of filming the documentary, Humble discovered that the business can be lucrative to the older men who perform it. The documentary revealed that one elder made £1,140 in just one night cutting 300 girls. Others made approximately £3.80 per operation.

“It probably shouldn't surprise and shock me but it does,” Humble said. “It's incredibly difficult to come to terms with.”

At least 200 million girls have undergone FGM in 30 countries, with an additional 15 million expected to be cut in the next decade. According to UNICEF, most girls are cut before they reach their fifth birthday. It’s a human rights violation, according to the World Health Organisation, and matches the definition of torture under Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture.

FGM has only been illegal in Kenya since 2011, but the practice continues as attitudes struggle to keep up with legislation. A third of girls in the Nyanza province, where the Kurian people reside, have been subjected to FGM.

“They believe that a girl who is not circumcised is always horny, to satisfy her sexually is very difficult,” an unnamed man said to Humble and local journalist Peter Murimi in the documentary. “That is why you find them doing [FGM].”

FGM is often illegal. But sometimes the law is superficial, barely enforced, and operates on the federal assumption of tolerance. Like Kenya, FGM is illegal in Egypt, and has been since 2007. Yet 87% of girls between 15-49 have undergone the procedure. Critics argue that it’s less about the culture, and more about a systemic political cycle of patriarchal abuse — 82% of girls cut under the age of 19 in Egypt were operated on by a doctor or medical personnel.

It’s not practised by one specific religion. Egypt is predominantly Muslim, but Kenya is mostly a Christian country. FGM meanwhile predates both religions, and can be found practised in Judaism too. There is nothing in the Quran or the Bible that permits any form of FGM, yet it persists. It’s a global problem that many argue is based in patriarchy — it’s a system of control invested into culture to maintain male power.

In the UK, there were 5,391 new cases of FGM recorded in England from 2016-17. FGM has been illegal here since 1985, but, just like Canada and the US, there is yet to be a single successful prosecution.

If you’re based in the UK, you can watch Extreme Wives with Kate Humble here.

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