By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Kenya's High Court ruling upholding a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) will give a much needed boost to the fight to end the widely condemned practice in the East African nation, women's rights groups said on Wednesday.
One in five Kenyan women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause a host of serious health problems, says the United Nations.
Kenya outlawed FGM a decade ago with a punishment of three years imprisonment and a US$2,000 fine, but the practice persists as some communities see it is necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters' marriage prospects.
Wednesday's court ruling dismissed a petition by a Kenyan doctor who argued the anti-FGM law was unconstitutional as it violated the right of adult women to practice their cultural beliefs and do what they wanted with their bodies.
"The upholding of the anti-FGM law is a definite boost for campaign to end FGM," said Felister Gitongo, program manager for End Harmful Practices for Equality Now.
"The judgment recognized the right of women and girls in cultural contexts and it will go a long way to validating the work we are doing and creating awareness within communities as often people use 'culture' as a means to advance FGM," Gitongo added.
Gitongo said the ruling also validated the work of anti-FGM campaigners and would be another tool they could use to support them in terms of funding for research and outreach campaigns.
Bernadette Loloju, chief executive of the semi-autonomous government agency Anti-FGM Board, said the verdict was an important victory for women's rights in Kenya.
"The absence of a law criminalizing FGM would be a grave mistake because it would allow perpetrators to go back to cutting women and girls as they please," said Loloju in a statement.
High Court Judge Lydia Achode said there was a body of evidence, including testimonies from survivors, which showed FGM was rarely consensual and that women were under extreme societal pressure to undergo the procedure.
"We are of the considered view that the impugned act (anti-FGM law) does not violate the constitution or women's rights to dignity," said Achode, who was heading the three-judge bench. "It falls short as a cultural practice, because it inflicts harm on women and girls thereby infringing upon their worth and dignity."
FGM threatens 4 million girls annually, according to the UN, and is practiced in more than 30 countries — largely in Africa, but also in parts of Asia and the Middle East, and by diaspora communities in the West.
In some cases, girls bleed to death or die from infections and the practice can also cause lifelong painful conditions such as fistula and fatal childbirth complications, according to the United Nations.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to end FGM by 2022 — eight years ahead of the 2030 global goal agreed by UN member states.
But campaigners fear that coronavirus pandemic has put Kenya's goal in jeopardy amid reports of "mass cuttings" involving hundreds of girls being held while schools were closed.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)