Campaign against female genital mutilation in colonial Kenya

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The British undertook a campaign from 1929 to 1932 to stop the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya, which was a British colony at the time.[1] Their efforts were met with resistance by the Kikuyu people, Kenya's largest tribe, and resulted in what was called the "female circumcision controversy" in the euphemistic terminology of the time. American historian Lynn M. Thomas writes that the issue became a focal point of the independence movement against British colonial rule, and a test of loyalty, either to the Christian churches or to the Kikuyu Central Association, the association of the Kikuyu people.[2]

The Kikuyu regarded FGM as an important rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. Uncut women were outcasts, and the idea of abandoning the practice was unthinkable.[3] Jomo Kenyatta, who became Kenya's first prime minister in 1963, wrote in 1930:

The real argument lies not in the defence of the general surgical operation or its details, but in the understanding of a very important fact in the tribal psychology of the Kikuyu—namely, that this operation is still regarded as the essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridoctomy [sic]. Therefore the ... abolition of the surgical element in this custom means ... the abolition of the whole institution.[4]

The campaign against FGM was led by the Church of Scotland. In March 1928, the issue came to a head when the Kikuyu Central Association announced that it would contest elections to the Native Council, with the defence of Kikuyu culture, including FGM, as its main platform. The following month the church at Tumutumu announced that all baptised members must offer a declaration of loyalty by swearing their opposition to FGM. Several other church missions followed suit. Robert Strayer and Jocelyn Murray write that the stage was set for a major conflict, with neither side willing to compromise.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joceyln Murray, The Kikuyu Female Circumcision Controversy, with special reference to the Church Missionary Society's sphere of influence, PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1974.

    Lynn M. Thomas, "'Ngaitana (I will circumcise myself)': Lessons from Colonial Campaigns to Ban Excision in Meru, Kenya", in Bettina Shell-Duncan, Ylva Hernlund (eds), Female "Circumcision" in Africa. Lynne Rienner, 2000, p. 132: "The years 1929 to 1931 mark what has been termed within Kenyan historiography as the "female circumcision controversy."

    Margaret Strobel, Marjorie Bingham, "Appendix A. World Studies as an Approach to World History: Female Genital Cutting and Kenyan/Gikuyu Nationalism," in Bonnie G. Smith (ed.), Women's History in Global Perspective, University of Illinois Press, 2004, p. 35: "The 'female circumcision controversy' played a critical role in Gikuyu nationalism.

  2. ^ Thomas 2000, p. 129ff.
  3. ^ a b Robert Strayer, Jocelyn Murray, "The CMS and Female Circumcision", in Robert Strayer (ed.), The Making of Missionary Communities in East Africa, Heinemann Educational Books, 1978, p. 36ff.
  4. ^ Kenneth Mufaka, "Scottish Missionaries and the Circumcision Controversy in Kenya, 1900–1960", International Review of Scottish Studies, vol 28, 2003.

Further reading[edit]