By Emma Batha
COPENHAGEN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female genital mutilation (FGM) will never end until men also throw their weight behind efforts to eradicate the potentially deadly practice, says Nigerian law student and anti-FGM activist Kelechukwu Nwachukwu.
On the other side of Africa, Kenyan farmer and community worker Tony Mwebia agrees. "The main reason why girls in Kenya undergo FGM is to increase their marriageability. If men said no to FGM, trust me, families wouldn't get their girls cut."
Nwachukwu, who will speak on Tuesday at Women Deliver, a major women's health and rights conference in Copenhagen, said men are crucial to stopping FGM in Nigeria because it is a deeply patriarchal society.
"It's almost impossible to end it without engaging men because they are the decision makers and gatekeepers in the community," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The global movement to end FGM has been galvanized by women activists across Africa who have risked death threats to speak out against a practice widely condemned as a serious human rights abuse.
But now a small number of men are joining their ranks. In Kenya, there is even a Maasai cricket team that campaigns against FGM.
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which is practiced in a swathe of African countries and pockets of the Middle East and Asia.
The ritual involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. In extreme cases, the vaginal opening is also sewn up.
The reasons for carrying out FGM vary between communities, but a key factor is the belief that a woman's sexuality needs to be controlled. The ritual is often considered a prerequisite for marriage.
However, the practice can cause serious physical and psychological problems, including potentially fatal complications during childbirth later in life.
No one knows how many girls die from the cutting itself.
"I've seen girls who have died, but the parents don't make the link. Many will tell you that it's just God's will," said Nwachukwu, 22, who co-chairs the Youth Network Against FGM in Nigeria.
"Most men in Nigeria are quite naive about FGM and don't know what's involved. They support it because it's a cultural practice but they don't know there are very harmful effects."
Nwachukwu said the horror of FGM was brought home to him five years ago when he was visiting a friend and heard a girl screaming. When he suggested going to help, his friend stopped him, telling him the girl was being initiated into womanhood.
"It's prevalent in the community I come from so I decided to ask questions. I was worried because I hope to get married one day and have daughters and I don't want them to be cut," said Nwachukwu, who also works with The Girl Generation, a U.K.-funded program to end FGM in 10 African countries.
Mwebia's journey to activism started when he was working on a U.N. project in Nairobi with refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, where FGM is widely practiced.
"I heard things I could not imagine," said the 28-year-old campaigner. "Men spoke about how they'd lost loved ones because of childbirth complications, mothers told me how their daughters had bled to death. Women also talked about the pain they suffered every time they had sex.
"Their stories really moved me and I swore to try to end this cruelty."
Mwebia, who is also attending Women Deliver, now works in the southwestern Kuria region where he said FGM remains almost universal despite Kenya outlawing the practice in 2011.
Nigeria banned FGM last year and Nwachukwu said the new law should be a "wake-up call" for men to speak up.
A quarter of women have been cut in Nigeria, where it is particularly prevalent in the south. Some see FGM as important for preserving a girl's virginity or for cleanliness. Others say it increases sexual pleasure for the man.
The ritual is also perpetuated by myths. Some believe that when a woman gives birth the baby will die if the clitoris touches its head, and others say the clitoris will keep growing if it is not cut.
But Nwachukwu said the main factor in Nigeria is social pressure. Girls who are not cut risk ostracization, as do their mothers, he said.
A striking feature about FGM in several countries is that women massively overestimate men's support for the practice. In Nigeria, two thirds of men want FGM to stop, but only half of women think men want it to stop, according to United Nations data.
Campaigners who want to end FGM in a generation say it is vital to get young men on board.
However, Nwachukwu and Mwebia admit their commitment to advocating on what is widely seen as a "women's issue" often raises eyebrows.
"People ask, 'Why are you involved? Are you a feminist?'," said Nwachukwu.
"I get comments every day, but I just give them the facts. I show them videos and pictures and they are shocked, and then they realize that this is a serious matter."
(Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)