AS you will note, I have the honor of convening a presentation by Samburu Girls Foundation founder Dr. Josephine Kulea on October 17 at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The Samburu, like the Maasai, are semi-nomadic tribes whose girls experience a higher rate of FGM than the Kenyan average. “According to the Kenya Demographic Household Survey of 2014, some 78 percent of Maasai women and 86 percent of Samburu women between the ages of 15 and 49, have been mutilated, while for Kenya’s general population the figure stands at 21 percent.” (1) So what is there to celebrate on this International Day of the Girl? Alternative Rites of Passage have taken hold, pioneered by many dedicated NGOs. “Already more than 13,300 Maasai and Samburu girls have avoided FGM.” (2)
Although Kenya has indeed shown progress, there remains a great deal still to do.
UnCUT/VOICES’ author Maria Kiminta, in another excerpt from our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, offers reflections on what is holding the status quo in place and setting limits on girls’ growing freedom from the blade.
The custom banned, and yet … Despite Kenya’s passage of The Children’s Act of 2001 to protect the young from harmful cultural practices and the nation’s president having condemned FGM in 1983, the practice goes on. Similarly, numerous NGOs and human rights activists excoriate FGM internationally and within Kenya as a violation of human rights, yet little progress has been made. FGM remains prevalent and requires a more integrated approach. For in fact, the Children’s Act of 2001, now in place for over a decade, has not prevented it. Its tenacious hold on tradition remains, especially among pastoral groups. And even worse, the elders of my community, in obvious defiance on hearing the edict, issued a statement to the authorities. Protesting that female ‘circumcision’ is a cultural right reserved exclusively by the tribe, they warned the central government that it had no business telling them to stop.
As a Maasai who knows all too well the effects of FGM, I feel obliged to tell not only the Maasai elders but the world about the harm girl children suffer, including me. … From my experience as a ten-year-old, I bear witness to the fact that FGM is not only traumatic but also perilous; it can bring life-long pain, suffering, and even death to girls. I would like to see the Maasai community conserve our rich culture. Let’s keep rituals, feasting and blessings on initiates but stop – full stop! — cutting genitalia.
The significance of FGM to the Maasai community. As a Maasai, I have been raised to feel great respect for our culture, and although female ‘circumcision’ is claimed by some, even among us, to be an outdated practice, it remains difficult for many to leave a way of life and adopt a new one, especially since, thus far, Maasai customs as a whole have survived largely intact. If FGM were not so tightly woven into the traditional fabric, convincing us to stop might be easier. But this magnitude of change would seem possible only with patience over the long run. …
I paused at this point in my writing, overcome by a sense of malaise, wondering how to address a tricky issue of pride. You’ll agree, of course, that the Maasai regard female ‘circumcision’ differently from the rest of the world, but the fact that we practice it, I must insist, does not make us lesser people. Our traditional ways of thinking have taught us that FGM is positive; that it improves a child’s life. From the Maasai perspective, then, the time-honored practice has the following aims.
A wrong rite of passage. The primary reason the Maasai give for FGM is its use as a rite of passage from immaturity to womanhood, making a girl ready for marriage. As you have already read, we young children were made to believe a ‘circumcised’ girl ripens, gains in obedience, and becomes aware of her role in the family and society as a whole. We also learn that once ‘circumcised’ we would enjoy the respect of our elders and peers since despite our tender years, we would no longer count as kids.
How, exactly, are these rewards presented? Before the procedure, girls are brought together daily, inspired not to fear, and assured that the most heroic will reap the best gifts. Initiates are also told that young men and their families will be watching and select wives only from among the most courageous. Thus, aspiration to be chosen by influence and wealth creates devotees of the ordeal. My feeling was that stakes like these propelled FGM beyond the status of a mere tradition; instead, as a lifestyle, its culmination in a show of heroism would also make me a hero for life. After all, the cutting isn’t even the most spectacular of the day’s events. Rather, festivities are boundless, and the whole village celebrates a girl’s passage to maturity, her accession to another level of existence.
Now, parents make most decisions, but in some cases girls beg to be ‘done’ earlier, giving in to peer pressure, ridicule and insults. Elders would warn those just circumcised to remain steadfast. “Don’t ever reveal your ordeal,” they were told. Instead, they were exhorted to motivate us to face the knife in silence, as they, ideally, had done. So whenever we asked them, “What was it like?” they would lie. “It was fine,” they’d say. “Everything’s ok,” and push us away. They would show us the gifts they had received and describe how everyone was ululating, dancing and praising them for their great achievement. They would also mock us and call us ‘babies’ because we had not yet confronted what they had. It was even more hurtful because girls we used to play with were now telling us to get lost. “Babies like you are beneath us,” they scoffed.
Sadly, their strategy worked. Most of us felt irritated enough to swear to join in the following season, but really, all we wanted was to escape the taunting and humiliation.
In the past, Maasai girls had been ‘circumcised’ at 17 or 18 years old, the age when a girl was considered ready for marriage. But now, victims are between 8 and 15. Why? The trend can be attributed to parental worry about girls becoming sexually active, sometimes as young as ten, thus increasing the risk of pregnancy before being cut — a community taboo.
Furthermore, the clitoris itself is blamed. Considered an aggressive appendage, local belief holds that it threatens the male organ and even endangers babies during delivery. How are neonates imperiled? The baby’s head touching the mother’s clitoris will, it is thought, lower the child’s IQ. Consequently, villagers consider the girl with a clitoris ‘unclean’ and unmarriageable. Anyone keeping her genital intact poses a threat, ultimately fatal to a man whose manhood might brush against her clit. In fact, so dangerous does she appear that the Council of Elders has passed a ruling: pregnancy before ‘circumcision’ makes the girl an outcast ineligible ever to marry in the tribe. Her choices are restricted to men from other groups. So, partly to prevent such tragic consequences of promiscuity, candidates for cutting are less often teens and more likely to be increasingly younger girls.
Another reason, however, for the cut is poverty. Because dowry can change hands only after ‘circumcision’, no matter the age of the betrothed, parents book their girls off for marriage to start receiving the bride price. The amputation tells suitors when to start instalments which, once paid up, entitle them to come and get their spouse. This is done in an orderly manner giving the mother time to teach the (too) young intended how to treat a man. And even if already wedded, the teen can remain in her parents’ home for as long as five more years.
Still another motive behind the downward trend in age is that children under ten are hardly old enough to refuse nor strong enough to resist. At the same time, they are coming increasingly to know their rights, and maybe a hint of insipient rebellion is also making initiates younger.
For parents have begun to apply an ironic and misguided viewpoint; they contend that smaller kids suffer fewer traumas. Whether true or not, escaping notice is important as well, for, as we have seen, the government made FGM illegal under the Children’s Act of 2001.
What really baffles me is how aware I am of just such motives, older people seducing children into undergoing rites of passage whose actual benefit accrues to the grown-ups in the form of wealth. Offspring bear the consequences since whatever they go through violates children’s rights including their right to health, freedom, security and protection.
- http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2017/01/kenya-maasai-samburu-women-fgm-170116184420081.html Retrieved 11 October 2017.
You can order Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. A Memoir and Source Book (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015) for a discount by writing to Tobe.Levin@uncutvoices.com