Halima Abdi charges foreign visitors at least $1,000 for a tour of remote northeastern Kenyan villages that most people wouldn’t dream of making. Her clients are young girls sent by their parents to undergo traditional circumcision.
Most of her customers are ethnic Somalis who arrive from countries such as the U.K., Sweden and the Netherlands, Abdi explained in an interview at her cramped one-room office in the suburb of Eastleigh in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Abdi says she’s offered “consultancy services” to hundreds of migrant families from abroad since she began operating in 2000.
“I have undergone the female cut and I have administered the same to my daughters and their granddaughters too will go through it,” said Abdi, a 48-year-old mother of five children. “These beliefs and values are still present and valued by Somalis in Africa and the developed world.”
While female genital mutilation has been illegal in Kenya since 2011, practitioners like Abdi continue to earn a handsome living from the procedure. The Wagalla Centre for Peace and Human Rights, a Wajir, Kenya-based advocacy group, says the practice has made some circumcisers rich enough to buy four-wheel-drive vehicles, build luxury homes in remote villages and acquire livestock.
As part of Kenya’s efforts to curb the practice, President Uhuru Kenyatta in December appointed Linah Jebii Kilimo as chairwoman of the state-run Anti-FGM Board Kenya. Kenyatta’s wife, Margaret, said in May female circumcision “should not have any place in any community living in the 21st century.”
Decades of conflict in Somalia, coupled with a growing international campaign against the female genital mutilation, has forced Somali parents to send their daughters to foreign countries to undergo what they consider to be a cultural rite of passage. Ninety eight percent of Somali women have undergone FGM, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Once Abdi has completed travel arrangements for her clients, parents and their daughters are driven in private vehicles to Garissa near the Somali border about 200 miles northeast of Nairobi. The journey usually involves paying bribes to security and immigration officials in Garissa who often check the documents of foreign visitors, she said.
“It’s a risky business and that is the first information I give to Somali migrant parents when they visit my office,” Abdi said. “They are ready to pay anything to mitigate the risk and ensure their daughters undergo the rite.”
FGM is considered by some communities as a way to prepare girls for adulthood and is often motivated by the belief that it reduces a woman’s libido and discourages sexual activity before marriage, according to the World Health Organization.
More than a quarter of girls and women have undergone genital cutting in Kenya, one of 29 countries in which it is practiced, according to Unicef. Globally, at least 125 million girls and women have been circumcised, according to the World Health Organization. There are no known health benefits to the procedure.
“Many factors like corruption, weak law enforcement and well-oiled cartels in various Kenyan towns are behind the rising number” of people coming to northern Kenya to have the cut administered, said Amran Abdundi, a program coordinator at women’s-rights organization Frontier Indigenous Network. “The law has been enacted, but enforcing it needs resources and strong goodwill from law enforcement agencies.”
The most basic form of the practice involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris. Two more extreme forms include the cutting of the labia and the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal, a process known as infibulation, or pharaonic circumcision. All three types are carried out Kenya. One in five Somali women and girls have undergone infibulation, according to Unicef.
Long-term consequences of FGM include recurrent bladder and urinary-tract infections, infertility, cysts and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, according to the WHO.
In northern Kenya, circumcisers use implements including knives, sharpened sticks, razor blades and thorns, according to Abdundi. Stitching of the wounds involves the use of twine made from tree bark.
After arriving in Garissa, the girls are transferred by 4x4 vehicles to sites operated by a network of traditional circumcisers at villages including Dadajibula, Welmerer and Amuma, who charge about $200 per circumcision and about $300 for accommodation, according to Abdi.
In the village of Dadajibula, Dubey Sankader, 80, operates from a temporary shelter made of sticks, wood and leaves. Sankader says she uses a support team of 10 women to help hold down the girls as the procedure is carried out.
“It’s painful and most of them faint in the middle of the rite, while others make loud noises and cries, but they are subdued by my permanent staff,” she said.
Once circumcised, the girls legs are initially tied together and a herbal remedy known as Malmal is used as an antibiotic and a pain-killer to help accelerate the recovery.
“Circumcised girls stay for one month before being allowed to move out of the facilities and the village with their parents who shower them with gifts, praise and building their confidence,” Sankader said.
The girls are allowed to leave after spending about six weeks recovering. Some are not so lucky. Sankader said she knows of at least one girl who died during the ritual, while others have either fallen into a coma or developed “complex trauma.”
The Anti-FGM Board, which is awaiting funding from Kenya’s government, plans to eradicate the practice by educating parents and children about the dangers of female genital mutilation and training officials like the police and district chiefs on why the law should be implemented, Kilimo said in a phone interview.
“We will also urge communities to come up with alternatives to rites-of-passage ceremonies that currently take place,” she said. “There must be another way of affirming to girls that they have come of age instead of subjecting them to the brutality of genital mutilation.”
Advocacy groups like the Wagalla Centre also want stricter laws to enable the authorities to seize the financial assets of people involved in the circumcision business.
Qali Hassan began her practice three decades ago and says her fees are now so high she only serves Somali clients from abroad. Local girls can no longer afford her services.
The 64-year-old mother of eight children currently offers her service out of a six-room structure on the outskirts of Dadaab, a town about 420 kilometers (259 miles) northeast of the capital, Nairobi. The world’s biggest refugee camp, which provides temporary shelter to more than 400,000 Somalis, is located a few miles north of Dadaab.
Hassan’s clinic includes an operating theater, waiting rooms for family members and a sanitation block with running water sourced from a solar-powered borehole, she said.
“The current anti-FGM law is silent on forfeiting properties and proceeds made by the circumcisers and something needs to be done so they can be stripped of this ill-gotten wealth and status in the society,” said Adan Garad, executive director of the Wagalla Centre.
Abdi says even though it’s illegal, she’ll keep practicing.
“Female circumcision within the Somali community is as old as our culture,” she said.