The global Ashoka community mourns the loss of Kenyan human rights activist Ken Wafula, who was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2002 for his work combating the practice of forced female circumcision.
Formerly a journalist covering human rights abuses, Ken pioneered the use of civil litigation as a mechanism for preventing parents, circumcisers, and village chiefs from forcing girls to undergo circumcision. While other measures have been introduced to discourage the practice – alternate rights of passage, civic education – none has proved especially effective, as female circumcision is rooted in cultural norms and traditions that take many years to redirect or overcome.
Ken saw that civil litigation, which enables courts to bar the practice, may deliver lasting structural change where other strategies have faltered. Building on his success in test cases, Ken developed an integrated approach to deterrence that involves three elements: community monitoring systems that enhance awareness of civil litigation options and help to mobilize community opposition to female genital mutilation, enabling a prompt intervention before the practice is carried out; going to court to seek prohibitive and mandatory injunctions, or permanent court orders barring the circumcision of girls; and counseling and family reconciliation initiatives.
In a growing number of countries where the practice is prevalent – Amnesty International lists 28 – Ken worked to assist girls who ask for help or who were referred to his organization as part of the community-monitoring efforts he encouraged.