New rituals are being established in Southern Kenya’s Masaai communities to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation (FMG). Although FMG has been formally outlawed in Kenya since 2001, a majority of girls from semi-nomadic tribes like the Masaai and Samburu still undergo the traditional treatment. According to Kenya’s Demographic Household Survey, 78% of Masaai women and 68% of Samburu women between the ages of 15-49 have been mutilated. However, as reported by Al Jazeera, some NGOs are working with the tribes to find alternative rites of passage. For example, a candlelit ceremony has been established where Masaai elders give girls a book and pen to symbolize the girl entering womanhood and shaping her own destiny through education and informed personal decisions. In return, by accepting a blanket given by the girls, the elders also pledge neither to accept the mutilation of girls or early marriage. Both practices encourage the peaceful circumvention of gender issues and allow women to participate more fully in their societies.
Nine years ago, the NGO, Amref Health Africa, started training peer instructors among all age groups in Masaai and Samburu communities (including young men, elders, women, mothers and girls) to educate about the consequences of FMG. Collectively the groups worked to develop alternative rites of passage. Now over 13,300 Masaai and Samburu women have avoided FMG. The NGO stated that “we started with a lot of resistance, but step by step, starting with the engagement of cultural elders as key decision makers in the community, we managed to create a conducive atmosphere of trust and confidence to discuss these culturally sensitive issues and meaningful dialogue is now ongoing, led by community leaders themselves.”
Alice, a 63 year-old traditional cutter, told Al Jazeera she did not want to be a part of the ancient practice, but was still proud of her traditional role in helping girls become women. Evidently the alternative rituals could have resulted in conflict over differing values and ideals.
The imposition of western ideals on indigenous people is always something to be undertaken with caution and understanding. There is always the potential for western developed nations to overlook and “water down” rich cultural and religious practices for the sake of “development.” More often than not, this kind of neo-colonialism results in ethnic tensions and the disenfranchisement of local tribes and communities. The outcome is sometimes the polar opposite to that intended, with the tensions threatening to destabilize peace rather than contribute to it.
For example, the Cultural Survival Quarterly Journal published an article outlining the negative effects of outside NGOs working with local law enforcement to eradicate FMG in Kenya. The article explained that many Masaai families cannot afford to give their children a formal education, so to protect their daughters from lives of poverty, they marry them off at a young age, which has required the FMG ceremony take place. However, over the past ten years activists have encouraged local authorities to arrest people who partake in such practices. Forceful approaches however have not succeeded. In response many Masaai no longer announce the ceremony and girls are taken into hiding to be circumcised out of the eye of authorities. Moreover, a trend has developed where extremely young children are circumcised before the authorities have reason to suspect the practice is occurring. So the recent work by the NGOs must be applauded for its positive, collaborative approach and sensitivity to the issue.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Alice said she first thought “who are you to change our culture?” but that “I changed my mind after I learned (from the NGO) that FMG can cause serious medical problems that can be life threatening.” By considering and including the tribe as a whole in the process, the NGO has ensured that a peaceful solution is possible.
The type of FMG performed by Masaai communities is known as clitoridectomy, in which the entire clitoris is removed. The procedure is often done in the child’s home (often mud huts) where the girl remains for four weeks to recover and have her wounds tended to. A razor blade is used and the girls are given animal blood to compensate for what they lose during the surgery. Time Magazine reports that the girls’ genitalia are left completely unrecognizable. The primary reason for female circumcision is as a rite of passage. It elevates a girl from childhood to adulthood, and is required for a girl to be considered a complete woman. Another important belief among the Masaai is that the rite has the potential to reduce the woman’s desire for sex, making her less likely to engage in adultery. However, excessive bleeding can occur during the procedure and often leads to death. Further, because the practices now occur in hiding from the authorities, FMG is mostly performed using shared and unsterilized objects which can lead to HIV/AIDS and tetanus, as well as damaging organs. The practice exposes the girls to serious health complications and is generally done against their wishes, violating fundamental human rights.
Although FMG is not a traditional image that comes to mind when considering violent threats against peace and stability, it is a war on women so deeply embedded in tradition that we do not recognize it. If it were carried out by one ethnic group against another, it would immediately be flagged as a threat to security. Therefore it is imperative that we pay attention, and ensure that community based programmes like that carried out by Amref Health Africa continue to find sustainable and peaceful solutions to this previously hidden violence perpetrated against young women and girls.