Alternative Right of Passage: More than 1,200 girls from Maasai communities took part in this ceremony as a way to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood, replacing Female Genital Cutting (FGC), a practice that can have severe consequences for girls’ health.
On June 30, I promised to do a Report from Kenya on female circumcision. Since then I have focused on the recent Kenya election. Moreover female circumcision is a difficult topic to cover fairly and accurately. One issue is terminology. It was originally referred to as “female circumcision” but in the mid 1970s with the rise of civil rights for women the terminology became “female genital mutilation” (FGM) which is a much more loaded description of the same thing. In Kenya this is frequently referred to as “the cut.”
Percentage of women aged 15 to 49 who in 2016 have undergone FGM. There are a few other places in the world where female circumcision is practiced. Note Kenya’s rate of 21%.
While the percentage of women from 15 to 49 in Kenya is now calculated as 21%. The 15 to 19 age group is estimated at 11% so its prevalence is declining, but 11% of the female population in any one year would equal more than 66,000 girls. Some tribes in Kenya, in particular the Luhya and Luo, have never practiced female circumcision. Therefore a hundred years ago, approximated 75% of Kenyan women were circumcised. The early English and American Protestant missionaries were horrified by the practice and by 1925 the Church Missionary Society prohibited Christians to practice FGM.
The controversy in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century pitted mostly anthropologists who consider female circumcision (note the terminology) as a cultural tradition that had to be respected. The human rights activists on the other hand took the position that, just because female genital mutilation was cultural, it was nevertheless bad. First there are many negative health aspects to FGM and no known health benefits. Every year, here in Kenya, one reads of a girl who dies from “the cut”. Since FGM has been outlawed in Kenya since 2011, the parents and the circumciser are then charged with murder, although it seems that, if the circumciser agrees to give up the practice, she receives no other punishment. As soon as a girl is circumcised, she is considered ready for marriage. In most cases she drops out of school and her parents arrange a marriage to a much older man and receive a large dowry. Since the operation also destroys the girl’s sexual desires, it is justified as a method of insuring chastity and fidelity of the new wife. In short FGM is raw patriarchy.
Part of the campaign to end FGM.
Gladys has a good friend who runs a school and orphanage in the Rift Valley near Nakuru. A few years back Gladys and I were visiting in December when circumcision takes place because it is the school holidays, Christmas break, and “summer” vacation, thus leaving sufficient time for the girls to heal from their wounds. We found a number of girls from tribes that still practice FGM who had fled to the school for safety so that they would not be circumcised. This now is a common phenomenon in Kenya. This does indicate that the practice is violence perpetrated on the girl child. Nonetheless the practice is still quite common in certain areas and the law and government officials are unable to suppress the custom. One counter-tactic is for parents to circumcise their daughters at a younger and younger age when they are unlikely to resist.
I once received an email where the author indicated that FGM occurs only among Muslim tribes. This is incorrect since it also occurs among Christian groups. The Quakers in Kenya are mostly Luhya who never practiced female circumcision. Nairobi Yearly Meeting has a strong missionary outreach to the Maasai, one of the tribes that has resisted ending the practice. They like the early European missionaries are appalled by the practice and require their converts to not practice FGM on their daughters.
Consequently the campaign to end female genital mutilation is one of changing culture. Laws are easy to pass, but culture is extremely difficult to change. Kenyans realize this and have promoted alternative rites of passage – think confirmation in the Catholic church or bat mitzvah in Judaism. Since each tribe has its own traditions, these rites need to vary according to the local culture.
In this case I am totally on the side of those who want to abolish FGM. Just because something has been practiced for centuries does not make it right. I consider FGM to be violence on the girl child by her parents and the culture of their society. I hope that the campaign to abolish it will succeed, the sooner the better.
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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.
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