25 November 2011

The role of ARPs in abandoning FGM in Kenya

‘Cutting girls is something our people have done for hundreds of years’, says Nashiru, the FGM Circumciser in a Maasai Community. ‘No one can convince us it’s wrong’. Women believe an uncut woman will be oversexed, compared to a cut girl who will remain pure until marriage, and faithful afterwards.

A recently cut 11 year old girl, Toshi, states although she dreaded the pain, she looked forward to becoming a woman. ‘If you’re not cut, no one will talk to you’. The children laugh at you as you’re still a child’. However, despite her own willingness to be cut, she did not support FGM, and insists she will not permit her girls to be cut. ‘We are taught in our school health club that FGM is a harmful practice, and I wish the Maasai would stop forcing girls to do it’, she said.

WHO has implemented a campaign of large scale distribution of literature to Kenya’s Maasailand to heighten awareness of the harmful effects of FGM. One headteacher, Rebecca Pateli, recalls ‘several injuries and even a death from FGM’ in her community.

One of the difficulties of eradicating FGM brings with it the consequences of forever altering the traditions of what is one of the few authentic African societies. The Maasai have only a tenuous hold on their culture, as I experienced in my visit to Kenya in October. The community I visited have been forced to give up their nomadic lifestyle due to the recent drought that has led to the loss of their cattle. How can human rights change agents help the Maasai turn away from the harmful aspects of their tradition (FGM and early forced marriage) and not taint the authenticity of their rich culture?

One way to create change is to offer alternative rituals or rites of passage (ARP). The work of Cath Holland in Central Pokot, as shown in the film Abandon the Knife, shows over 170 girls standing up to their community and choosing to not have FGM. It also shows the benefits of completing education for girls, as my favourite line in the film states that ‘cows (from a dowry) can die yet the benefits of education can bring milk for life!’ Another ARP ceremony will occur in early December in Pokot, saving hundred more girls from FGM.

A Maasai education charity further adds ‘an educated girl with an income in a developing country reinvests 90% of her of her earnings in her family, compared to a boy who invests 35%’. Each extra year of primary school will add 10% and secondary school 25% to a girl’s income. Educated girls marry later, have fewer children, less birth complications (obstetric fistula) and add to their country’s economy. One Maasai community I visited had become followers of Christianity, under a Maasai Pastor. I heard from a strong young 18 year old woman who has become a teacher. As the third girl of 7 siblings, she had run away to escape FGM at around age 10, despite her elder sisters being cut, and later was reconciled with her family. She, and two 16 year olds from this community, have remained uncut, and the younger girls are completing their schooling. No younger girl has been cut in the 100 strong community. This gives hope that changes in world view can lead to sustained change.