By Emma Batha
COPENHAGEN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenyan families wanting their daughters to undergo ritual genital cutting are increasingly arranging for it to be done secretly at night to avoid arrest, campaigners said at a major women's rights conference.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in Kenya, which is widely seen as leading the way in efforts to eradicate the internationally condemned practice.
Linah Jebii Kilimo, chairwoman of Kenya's Anti-FGM Board, said the government would introduce an FGM hotline this year that people could call if they thought a girl was about to be cut.
"There are changing trends in Kenya because of the law," Kilimo said.
"People no longer perform the (public) ceremonies, they cut girls at night. Some bring medical personnel to do it in their homes," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen.
About a quarter of girls and women in Kenya have undergone FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia.
Kilimo said many still see it as an important part of their culture that is crucial for social acceptance and increasing their daughters' marriage prospects.
Campaigners said although FGM is becoming increasingly secretive in many places, some communities, including the Kuria and Pokot in the west, are still carrying out FGM with very public celebrations.
"In some parts of Kenya it happens in the early hours of the morning, but in Kuria it happens in broad daylight with dancing and singing," said Tony Mwebia, an anti-FGM campaigner in the region where FGM is almost universal.
"There's no way the police can arrest the whole community."
Kilimo said a government administrator had had his house burnt down last year in Kuria for trying to enforce the law.
Another official was shot at for trying to stop a cutting ceremony in the Kipsigis community in the Rift Valley highlands.
"We have these defiant communities of course, but we say that the law will catch up with them," said Kilimo, a former government minister.
Kenya has set up a dedicated team of 20 prosecutors to deal with cases of FGM and child marriage, but Kilimo said prosecutions must go hand in hand with education.
"You have to transform people's mindset on how they perceive a person who is not circumcised because there is a lot of stigmatization," she said.
"People fear being ostracized. Parents say, 'I have to do this for my child. I don't want my child to lead a lonely life, to be laughed at.'"
She said there were even cases where parents had decided not to cut their daughters, but they were later forced to undergo FGM by their husbands who feared being excluded from men's meetings for having married "a child" - an uncut woman.
Kilimo described FGM, which affects around 200 million girls and women worldwide, as the worst form of gender-based violence.
She said the hotline would be particularly helpful in stopping FGM in Kenya's more remote regions, which have mobile phone access.
"Almost everyone in Kenya has a handset - it will increase surveillance," she added.
Some 5,500 delegates from over 160 countries are attending the Women Deliver conference which ends on Thursday.
(Reporting by Emma Batha, editing by Alisa Tang. 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.)