I met a most remarkable woman last summer while traveling in Kenya. Her name is Mercy M. Musomi, and she is the executive director of Girl Child Network, based in Nairobi. The Network is a coalition of organizations that advocate for female children’s rights in a country with deeply held cultural beliefs and practices that can be dangerous and harmful.
Since Girl Child Network’s inception in 1995, it has promoted changes in girls’ and women’s health through education, policy, and distribution of supplies. The Network focuses many activities on female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision. While Kenya bans this activity, it still occurs in some areas, where it is considered to be part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood and a necessary purification process. The traditional ceremonies usually take place in November and December and are performed by tribal women using an iron-wedged knife. In addition to common immediate problems like infections and hemorrhaging, girls who survive the initial procedure face a lifetime of pain and danger related to cysts, abscesses, keloid scars, anemia, septicemia, tetanus, urinary retention, chronic infections, painful sexual intercourse, and difficult and dangerous childbirth due to the inelasticity of the scar tissue. And that says nothing about the psychological consequences of undergoing a terrorizing surgical procedure without anesthesia.
As Ms. Musomi explained the extent of the FGM problem to me, I asked about nurses’ involvement in activities to eradicate the practice and was surprised to learn there is very little. This seems to be a huge missed opportunity. However, Ms. Musomi further explained that nurses were badly needed in the hospitals and clinics because of the country’s severe nursing shortage. Most of the community outreach occurring in Kenya and other parts of Africa is accomplished through the work of nonprofessional staff, often volunteers. With this kind of fragile infrastructure, it is easier to understand why it has been so difficult to change behavior around the FGM issue.
The International Council of Nurses, based in Geneva, has issued a statement on FGM that identifies it as a practice [that] violates the basic human rights of girls and women, denying them their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination, and in the most extreme cases, their life. The statement goes on to say it is important for nurses to understand the social and physical issues behind FGM to provide the best possible care and that nurses can work individually or with other organizations to discourage, prevent, and eventually eliminate FGM. While I applaud the Council for taking a stand, it hasn’t gone far enough.
Nurses are the natural group to provide respectful leadership and action around this personal and public health issue, and I’m sure nurses can facilitate the deployment of scarce resources in a way that multiplies their impact. Our challenge is to find the nurses to do this work and support them in their ongoing efforts. You can help by donating to the Network or contacting it to find out what kind of assistance would be most helpful. For more information, go to www.girlchildnetwork.org.