One Palestinian woman when asked what she thought about some of the retrogressive cultural practices that women and girls have to live up to said this, ‘When we are born, we are controlled by our fathers, we grow up and we are controlled by our brothers. We are married and controlled by our husbands; then we give birth and are controlled by our sons.” This statement, though probably spoken in a context devoid of the optimism of a world in which gender equality was a possibility, summarizes the challenges that an average girl and woman continue to face and the desire to be free of this domination. Like other forms of violence that seek to exercise control and belittle the place and person of women in society, Female Genital Cutting(FGM) is both physical and psychological in its ramifications. It has caused untold pain, suffering, and humiliation to over 125 million women and girls the world over. In addition to severe pain, FGC has put women through shock, hemorrhage, bleeding, tetanus, sepsis and the risk of death.
There have however been a tremendous effort to fight female genital cutting and instead explore Alternative Rites of Passage(ATP). Various communities and organizations are involved in this exercise that ensures the preservation of the cultural value of the right of passage while empowering women and girls by doing away with the dehumanizing practice of female cutting. In addition to that, girls are not expected to be married and raise families immediately after. Rather, key stakeholders in the community are engaged in concerted efforts to popularize these ATPs that are slowly gaining popularity within various ethnic communities in Kenya that practice FGM.
Amongst the Meru Community of Kajuki, Kenya, ATP seminars are conducted as part of a St. Peterslifeline UK sponsored program. These seminars are preceded by discussions with the local circumcizers, parents, and elders as well as the teenage girls who would otherwise be considered ripe for ‘cutting’. Permission is granted by the girls’ parents and the local leadership to have the girls congregate in a secluded location for the 5 day exercise. The seclusion is a similar practice to the 1 week period provided in actual traditional initiation ceremonies for the girls and provides a different setting away from the chores and responsibilities that await the girls on a typical day at home. The daily forums include lectures, group discussions and games with breaks for meals and helping out in responsibilities when assigned. The girls are taught their rights from all forms of sexual violations and how to raise the alarm if they feel threatened. Other topics covered include the male and female anatomy, friendship, dating and marriage processes, various forms of female cutting as well as the dangers involved in the practice. Upon graduation the initiates are awarded with certificates in a public celebration in which their parents and the local community are invited. The program is supported by the local Catholic church and has been instrumental in reducing the FGM cases in the area.
The Maasai community of Loita Hills, in South Western part of Kenya, have a slightly different form of ATR. The girl has her head shaved as is the case during the actual ceremony. However, instead of the cut, she has milk, an integral product in Maasai culture, poured on her thighs. The girl then reappears wearing a traditional headdress as a sign of the transition into womanhood and a bracelet as a symbol of her graduation.
Shompole Maasai’s work hand in hand with Amref Health Africa to provide ARP to the young girls. Most of the traditional rituals are retained with the exception of the actual cut. The girls have 2 to 3 days of seclusion in which they are taught the dangers of FGM, early marriage, and teenage pregnancies. To mark the graduation, the girls are paraded and blessed by the elders after which a big celebration is held for the ‘new women’. Amref has also helped to dispel the notion that ‘uncut’ girls will not find suitable husbands by involving the ‘morans’ in these programs where they publicly promise to marry ‘uncircumcised’ girls.More than 9,000 girls have gone through an Alternative Rite of Passage since Amref began partnering with Maasai communities.
Amongst the Kisii and Kuria Communities, the Young Women Christian Association has set up rescue centres to which young girls escape when faced with the ‘cut’ especially during school holidays. The local communities have also largely embraced the ATP programs provided to their girls and in some cases, the parents have become members of YWCA to help advance the cause of zero FGM in the locality.
The successful implementation of ARP requires the integration of all stakeholders. Without input from the parents, local schools, and religious and community leaders, little progress can be realized. Education also plays a key role in ensuring the proper understanding of the negative effects on the girl child.
The writer is a Research Consultant with Savic Consultants in Nairobi