The politics of sexual violence against men in Kenya: ‘How can we have a President who is not circumcised?’

Jessica Auchter

In January 2008, 16-year old Walter Odondi, a member of the Luo ethnic group in Kenya, was kidnapped and blindfolded by a group of men:

‘They ripped off my underwear using a panga [machete]. When the men had pinned me down, the man with the panga pulled my foreskin out and started to play with it. He would slice it a little, and then he started mocking me, and then he would slice it a little more, and then mock me some more. This cutting lasted for five minutes, and it was the greatest pain I have ever felt in my life.’

What happened to Walter was part of a larger context of violence in Kenya after the presidential elections in 2007. The election was contested by Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo ethnic group, and Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Kibaki won amid widespread accusations of election rigging and corruption. The accusations soon degenerated into violence and ultimately resulted in over 1000 deaths and more than 350,000 displaced persons. A small part of this violence involved the forced circumcision of Luo boys and men, as the above story describes.

The post-election violence was investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity. In December 2010, the ICC prosecutor filed charges that included circumcisions under the category ‘other forms of sexual violence’. But in March 2011, ICC judges decided the crime should fall under ‘other inhumane acts’ instead.

Why did this shift occur? Why was forced male circumcision in Kenya not considered sexual violence by the ICC?

In the rest of this post I want to make two points. First, that these acts did in fact constitute sexual violence, and second, that notions of masculine inviolability are preventing international legal frameworks from properly accounting for sexual violence against men. Despite widespread evidence, this has resulted in a failure to properly punish perpetrators.

Kikuyu culture and circumcision

In Kikuyu culture, circumcision is a vital rite of passage that marks the turning-point from boy to man, and the ability to participate in community governance, equating manhood with qualified participation in politics.

Kikuyu tell a history of Kenya focused on brave Kikuyu warriors, the Mau Mau, who rescued the state from its colonial masters. Other ethnic groups are constructed as weaker — as feminine — and therefore less qualified to belong in Kenyan society, or to participate in the political process.

As a result, we should think about forced adult male circumcisions not just as acts of violence, but as related to contested cultural notions about what makes a man. The forced circumcisions represented Kikuyu men declaring that they wielded power over the feminized Luo men whose flesh they mutilated.

Forced circumcision as sexual violence

Instances of sexual violence against men often involve forms of emasculation, where perpetrators seek to feminize their victims by rendering them weak, violated and passive in contradistinction to stereotypical masculine ideals. Testimonies from victims of forced circumcision in Kenya underline its nature as a sexual crime.

Here are two brief examples:

Caroline Anyango’s husband ran for a local-level position with Odinga’s party, making him an especially visible target. In January 2008, a group of 20 men broke down the door to their home, found him hiding in a bedroom and sliced off his foreskin. Anyango noted that ‘we were all forced to watch, including the children. They were saying that until all the Luos are circumcised they can’t take part in the political process’.

On 31 December 2007, Kevin Omollo joined supporters of Raila Odinga, but ran into members of a Kikuyu gang. Unarmed, he was beaten by his assailants. Eventually, one removed his pants and sliced off his foreskin with a six-inch kitchen knife. His attackers said to him: ‘How can a kihii [uncircumcised boy] rule the country? How can we have a President who is not circumcised?’.

The theme of qualified manhood is apparent in both of these stories. Here we see the use of a Kikuyu cultural ritual — circumcision — to violently humiliate groups who do not practice the same cultural rites. The notion that some cultural practices transform boys into men and thereby worthy members — and indeed leaders — of a political community, is directly related to the power exerted by men over other men during episodes of political violence.

It should be noted that the goal of these circumcisions is not to raise the status of Luo men by circumcising them forcibly, but rather to reinforce a particular picture of what a qualified body looks like. That is, these acts were intended to perform a double emasculation: first by highlighting that Luo men were not ‘real men’ in the eyes of the Kikuyu, and second, to demonstrate that they could not be real men because they were made to be victims of sexual violence. This paradox is obscured by simply labelling forced circumcision as inter-ethnic violence, which misses its crucial dimension of toxic masculinity and its connections to political participation.

International legal responses: problems and solutions

As mentioned above, these crimes were taken before the International Criminal Court. Yet they were categorized as other inhumane acts rather than as crimes of sexual violence. This follows a similar categorization in other cases, such as the Dusko Tadic genocide case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where charges that Tadic had forced male detainees to perform oral sex on one another were categorized as torture rather than as sexual violence.

Part of the explanation for why this occurs lies in the evolution of sexual violence legislation in international law. Sexual violence is often equated with rape, which limits the ability of courts to consider other forms of sexual violence, and solutions to sexual violence are often framed in terms of women’s empowerment. While this is a laudable goal, it has the effect of equating the victims of sexual violence with women and children, and focusing only their vulnerability, which makes it more difficult to consider men as victims of sexual violence.

When acts of sexual violence are coded as other types of violence, it makes it much more difficult to track the number of acts of sexual violence that are actually occurring, and to recognize instances of male vulnerability in global politics. Its preconceptions about who is vulnerable and who is inviolable undermines the international community’s ability to take all forms of sexual violence seriously.

Jessica Auchter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Her recent article, ‘Forced male circumcision: gender-based violence in Kenya’, was published in the November 2017 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.

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