By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Girls in Kenya are being taken across the border to countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia for female genital mutilation (FGM) to avoid a crackdown on the harmful traditional practice at home, campaigners said on Monday.
Kenya criminalised FGM in 2011 with a minimum punishment of three years imprisonment and a US $2,000 fine — spearheading efforts to curb the internationally condemned ritual with the most comprehensive anti-FGM legislation in east Africa.
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But while fear of the law — coupled with increased awareness of the harmful effects of FGM — has helped reduce prevalence rates, say campaigners, the deep-rooted practice persists as communities discover new ways to evade prosecution.
"Cross-border FGM is becoming an increasing trend in the areas we work along Kenya's border with Uganda and Tanzania, especially in December during the school holidays," said Agnes Kola, womens' rights coordinator for ActionAid Kenya.
"It is all very secretive but when we have community meetings, we are informed of such cases and we see it as an emerging challenge to our anti-FGM programs."
Kola said there was no data available on the numbers of girls in Kenya travelling to neighboring countries for FGM as much of it was underground and that it was a new trend.
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, says the United Nations.
Seen as necessary for social acceptance and increasing a girl's marriage prospects, FGM is prevalent across parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
It is usually performed by traditional cutters, often with unsterilised blades or knives. In some cases, girls can bleed to death or die from infections. It can also cause lifelong painful conditions such as fistula and fatal childbirth complications.
'VACATION CUTTING SEASON'
In Kenya, one in five women and girls aged between 15 and 49 in Kenya have undergone FGM, says the UN.
While some cases have been brought to court under Kenya's anti-FGM law, implementation remains a challenge, largely due to a lack of resources and capacity of law enforcement agencies and difficulties reaching remote areas.
UN data shows 75 cases of FGM were brought before Kenyan courts in 2016 but only 10 cases resulted in a conviction.
Campaigners said cross-border FGM is being seen among communities such as the Maasai, Pokot and Kuria who live along Kenya's west and southwestern borders with Uganda and Tanzania.
It has also been witnessed with Oromo and Somali communities near Kenya's border with Ethiopia and Somalia.
The same communities live on either side of the border and have strong ancestral ties, said campaigners. As a result, they daily informally cross the porous border for trade, cattle grazing and visiting relatives.
"So when vacation cutting season happens in December, it has become very easy for parents to take their daughters across the border for FGM," said Tony Mwebia from the Men End FGM campaign.
"No one is going to suspect anything. The girls come back and are kept at home after the procedure to recover until school starts — no not even the teachers are able to detect anything."
As well as enforcing Kenya's law, which also allows for the prosecution of FGM cases performed outside the country, community awareness on the the other side of the border was also key to curbing cross-border FGM, said campaigners.
"Governments need to show commitment to laws with adequately funded and resourced strategies to ensure communities understand why FGM is harmful and that ending the practice is in the best interest of all members of society," said Ann-Marie Wilson of 28 Too Many, an anti-FGM campaign group.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)