Maasai Lead Way to Ending Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya

By: Sidi Sarro, Key Correspondents

On 22 July, the UK is hosting the first-ever Girl Summit, which aims to end female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage. Sidi Sarro reports on how Kenya’s Maasai community are embracing alternative rites of passage for their girls.

Dressed in colourful kangas (traditional wrappers) and adorned in brightly-coloured beads and a headdress, 13 year old Naserian steps out to receive her certificate. She is one of many Maasai girls who are undergoing a symbolic ceremony which ushers them into womanhood. The air is filled with festivities and there is a distinct aroma of roasting meat.

Previously in Naserian's community, girls her age would be getting circumcised. Cutting out part of a girl’s genitalia, including the clitoris, used to be the norm in Kenya’s Maasai community. Female circumcision marked the transition from girlhood to womanhood and motherhood respectively. A circumcised girl was the pride of the community – a sign of strength, perseverance and courage. Uncut girls were looked down upon and treated as children. They could not get married or have children of their own and were often ostracized by the community. Consequently, many girls secretly opted to undergo the rite, even after Kenya criminalized the practice.

But this has changed in recent years. Instead of cutting their girls, the Maasai community are embracing alternative rites of passage.

Changing with the times

"The government banned female circumcision and, as a community, we have to change with the times and do away with cultures that are not helpful," says Mzee Sadera, a Maasai elder in Kajiado.

Ruth, who now advocates against female genital mutilation (FGM), says: “I was cut and it is the most horrible and traumatic experience I went through in my life. I bled so much despite the traditional herbal concoction which was applied to me.”

After she gave birth, Ruth went on to experience complications and had to be treated for fistula, a condition which often affects girls who are circumcised. Today, she is an independent activist who works to ensure that FGM is done away with in her community and alternative rites embraced. She has adopted girls who have run away from circumcision and early marriages and currently lives with six girls, besides her two children.

Risk of HIV infection

FGM can have dire consequences and many girls bleed to death during the rite. Those who survive the cut face other reproductive health problems such as painful sex, fistulas and difficulties during childbirth – and may also face a higher risk of HIV infection.

There are clear links between FGM and HIV transmission, despite the lack of research to evidence this.   After the “surgery”, the girls tend to be  stitched so tightly that first sex is traumatic, often forced, resulting in the loss of blood, in addition to the usual bodily fluids and so increasing the risk of HIV transmission. According to UNAIDS, the increased prevalence of herpes in women subjected to female genital mutilation may also increase the risk for HIV infection, as genital herpes is a risk factor in the transmission of HIV.

However, many traditional birth attendants, who in the past used to be circumcisers, have now been trained to teach girls on alternative rites. This practice is community-owned and it targets everyone from village elders, parents, young men and the girls themselves. “It is not uncommon nowadays to find fathers seeking us out to take their girls through this rite which is less harmful and more humane,” says Ruth Sitatoi a traditional birth attendant.

New rite of passage

Unlike before when most of the girls’ genitalia would be removed, nowadays their rite of passage begins with education about sexual and reproductive health. This covers hygiene, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent HIV. The girls also learn about the dangers of female genital mutilation, early marriages, teenage pregnancies and the importance of education.

The young girls then undergo a symbolic ceremony whereby their heads are clean shaven and they are given traditional bracelets. Fresh milk is poured on their thighs. The girls are  dressed up in a traditional headdress and beads to symbolize their transition from girlhood to womanhood and presented to the community.

“We now know this new practice is not harmful to our culture and, even though girls are not being cut anymore, they are still taught the same way as they used to on how to be respectful and better women of the community,” says Sitatoi.

It is also having other positive impacts. Nice Nailantei Lengete, an anti-FGM advocate, says: “The incidences of early child marriages and teenage pregnancies have gone down and more girls are able to continue with their education.”

Educating other communities

Over 125 million girls and women worldwide have suffered from FGM, depriving them of the ability to feel sexual pleasure, and this number continues to increase, as does the number of HIV-related deaths, which remains the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age around the world.

Ending the global pandemic of violence against women, which includes FGM, must be a priority for the post-2015 development agenda, alongside a clear target to significantly reduce HIV-related deaths among women and girls. Engaging civil society and getting community leaders on board is key to winning this fight as many remain unconvinced if not opposed to alternative rites of passage.

Naserian is happy she didn't have to be circumcised and that she can continue her education. She is also grateful for the many life lessons she was taught during her rite of passage ceremony. For her, this is just the beginning towards her journey as a woman. She hopes to become a nurse when she grows up so she can help mothers and children in her community. If the Girl Summit does its job then maybe more girls at risk of FGM can look forward to as bright a future as Naserian.

Sidi Sarro lives in Kenya and is a member of the Key Correspondents network which focuses on marginalised groups affected by HIV, to report the health and human rights stories that matter to them. The network is supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Photo by Nell Freeman for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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