The situation in specific countries
Focus on Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia
Five countries, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Somalia, account for almost a quarter of the 200 million women and girls worldwide who have undergone FGM (an estimated 48.5 million). While the prevalence of FGM among women aged 15–49 is 21% in Kenya, 98% in Somalia, 65% in Ethiopia, 10 % in Tanzania and only 0,3% in Uganda, a recent report by UNFPA Kenya noted that communities across borders often have a higher prevalence (UNFPA Kenya, 2019).
In the five countries, five different ethnic groups reside in more than one country (the Kikuyu, Kuria, Maasai, Pokot and Somalis). They share traditions and cultures, including the practice of FGM. A 2019 UNFPA report highlights the differences in the practice across and within countries in Eastern Africa, particularly with regards to the age of cutting. The report also outlines similarities in practice shared by ethnic groups across borders.
For example, Somali girls in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Somaliland are at risk of undergoing the cut at the same period of their lives. However, there are also differences within the Somali community in terms of the type of practice (Somalis in Kenya tend to practice type I, those in Somalia mostly practice type IV). (GRIGED, 2008)
A Kenyan baseline study commissioned by the Anti-FGM Board and UNICEF in 2017 had previously shown the influence of border communities on the prevalence of FGM. A survey showed a significant number of women living in bordering countries who had visited Kenya with a girl who was to undergo FGM. Different stakeholders in the study reported that cross-border practice has a common reality. There is, for example, a trend for married women from Uganda to be taken across the border into Kenya to undergo FGM secretly. Moreover, circumcisers from Kenya also travel into Uganda to perform FGM. (GRIGED, 2008)
Activists from Kenya testify of cross-border FGM in regions close to the Tanzanian border.
“The Maasai communities that live in both countries share cultural practices, including FGM, and have land and family members on both sides of the national borders. They can easily move girls to one side or the other to have them undergo FGM”
“On the Tanzanian side there are Maasai who also practice FGM. There are Maasai (Kenyan & Tanzanian) who own land and homes in both countries as their farms are on the border line. The presence of a porous border, families, and homes on both sides has been one of the factors that has contributed to the increase of cross-border FGM. The implementation of the Prohibition of FGM Act (2011) in Kenya has also contributed to the increase in cross-border FGM” Felister Gitonga, Equality Now, Kenya office (Gitonga, F. Equality Now, 2019)
The same goes for the Kuria community who live in Kenya and Tanzania, on both sides of the border as highlighted by Natalie Robi Tingo, an end FGM activist in Kenya, founder and Executive Director of the Msichana Empowerment in Kuria. This cross-border phenomenon is observed in the Kuria District in Kenya as well as the Serengeti and Tarime Districts, Musoma Urban and Rural Districts, and the Bunda District of Tanzania. One of the main strategies for families who want to have their daughters undergo FGM is to take them across the border.
Although there is no official data on the number of girls who undergo FGM across the border, she reports that:
“In recent years we have witnessed families planning visits, girls being ferried on motorbikes during the night and the early morning to undergo the cut, then brought back into Kenya”. (Gitonga, F. Equality Now, 2019)
She emphasized that to eradicate Cross-border FGM in our communities, stakeholders in these communities must coordinate efforts and interventions.
Ghana / Burkina Faso – Togo
There is evidence of cross-border FGM in Ghana’s border regions with Burkina Faso and Togo, although the practice is outlawed in all three countries.
A study by Sakeah, E, et al., published in 2019, concluded that easy travel across the borders is one of the factors contributing to FGM continuing to thrive in the country despite it being illegal since 1994. Their data suggests that in the regions close to the borders of Burkina Faso and Togo, “national borders are less important in defining zones for this practice than traditional tribal boundaries”. Women may travel easily to the neighboring country to circumcise their daughter(s).
“Since communities at the borders share the same historical background, traditions and customs with their counterparts in Burkina Faso and Togo, it has become easy for community members from these regions to continue to elude established laws by crossing the borders to circumcise their daughters because the tradition knows no boundaries. Halting the practice along border communities would therefore demand a cross-border approach. This is particularly crucial in the case of Ghana where laws against the practice are weaker than in the neighboring countries where the practice is more deeply rooted.” (Sakeah, 2019)
Burkina Faso / Mali – Ghana – Niger – Ivory Coast
In 2008, the GRIGED (UNFPA-UNICEF,2018) conducted one of very few studies on cross-border FGM in the border regions of Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Niger. Looking at the state and situation of the practice along these areas, the research aimed to collect information on the effectiveness of the strategies to combat FGM.
The study was essentially qualitative and was mainly conducted using observations collected along the borders as well as interviews with relevant stakeholders.
During the study, communities in areas around the Burkina-Faso/Ghana border did not easily acknowledge the existence of cross-border FGM. Respondents often refused to say that they had seen cases of cross-border practice for fear that they would be asked to give the names of the people involved, including parents or neighbors. This makes it hard to prove the existence of the practice as there is no concrete evidence of cross border practice cases. (UNFPA-UNICEF,2018 ).
“I certainly have never seen it, but I have heard that people are leaving with the children from here [in Burkina Faso], and that they are going to have them excised there. Here, there are laws in place. If you do not respect these laws, when you are caught cutting your daughter, you are doomed. We even saw on TV and heard on the radio that people were sentenced for a year or six months. This is why people take their children to the Ivory Coast because there, you can do that without encountering any problems. So that’s it. We hear about it but I’ve never seen it. ” Excerpt from a group focus in Niangoloko, Burkina Faso (UNFPA-UNICEF,2018 )
At the same time, the GRIGED note that, as a clandestine practice, cross-border excision is not very perceptible to the population, and even less so to those involved in the fight against the practice.
However, in the border areas of Burkina Faso and Mali, cross-border FGM seems to be a well-known phenomenon.
“Cross-border excision is an undeniable reality in the region of Ouahigouya and its surroundings and this is due to the proximity to Mali and the historical links that unite the populations. People travel by mopeds and buses to Koro and other small border villages to have their children excised. They especially go there during the rainy season and the cold season. One of the village chiefs with whom we are working against FGM told me one day that if we wanted to succeed in our fight, we had to post security and health workers at the borders.” Interview with project officer, Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, GRIGED 2008.
“Some women leave Burkina Faso to come and excise their daughters here [in Mali]. I will not give you names, but I know where they are. It is a widespread phenomenon here. It is mainly the Burkinabe who do it; whether they come from Burkina or those who are here in Koro, they all practice excision … ” Interview with representative of an organization, Mali, GRIGED, 2008.
The Population Council’s Burkina Faso and Mali cross-border study confirms that kinship relations outweigh the border division. People move easily across the borders, members of the same ethnic groups live on either side, they have relatives on each side of the border, share the same customs and culture. The practice of FGM is therefore embedded in this cultural cross-border exchange (Wouango, J., Ostermann, S. and Mwanga D, 2020).
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