On March 10, 2017, in the Mary O’Brien room at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, scholars and activists focused intently on Four specific Challenges to Ending FGM: Medicalization, Female Genital (Cosmetic) Surgery, Asylum, and (Lack of) Education (about FGM) … Co-sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre and the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK charity commission # 1169186), the workshop enhanced knowledge that can improve quality of life, especially for girls under threat of FGM.
Body art protest against FGM
16 June 2017, which is commemorated as the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE AFRICAN CHILD, called on civil society to reconsider African girls’ well-being. Why June 16? In 1991, in response to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 in which the government attacked South African youth demonstrating peacefully against apartheid education, the Organization of African Unity reserved that date for global reflection on action to better children’s lifetime opportunities. Specifically, a non-violent protest against the additional requirement of Afrikaans together with English as the language of instruction was brutally disrupted. Behind student discontent was surely the Bantu Education Act of 1953, conceived by its author H. F. Verwoerd as an exclusionary, separate and UNequal measure: ‘There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community’.” [See http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising] [Retrieved 16 june 2017]
It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow from a brilliant English novelist, that moral education is central to development, and even more so to disarm racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny behind the wide-spread abuse of genital mutilation.
At the Oxford workshop session on education chaired by Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Professor Hazel Barrett of Coventry University presented the EU-sponsored REPLACE 2 project that evaluated interventions to change behavior, — that is, to end FGM –, in Diaspora communities in Europe. By educating change agents, i.e. ethnic insiders, and enabling them to coordinate educational activities with community members, REPLACE 2 followed up the pilot REPLACE 1 that looked at FGM intervention in the European Diaspora in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Pedagogy was pivotal. Kate Agha of Oxford Against Cutting and Kameel Ahmady, author of In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES, 2016) also spoke to education, Kate outlining an art and film-making project with middle-schoolers, and Kameel revealing how epidemiological interviews correlated with a decreasing number of FGM victims. Raising the issue in a critical way serves both activism and research.
Kameel Ahmady and Tobe Levin von Gleichen in Rome
- Kate Agha Oxford Against Cutting
- 10 March 2017
- Professor Hazel Barrett at the Oxford FGM Workshop 10 March 2017
UnCUT/VOICES author Maria Kiminta agrees. In our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, education takes pride of place. We offer here the Preface and Chapter 1.
PREFACE by Maria Kiminta
Joy sat down with me when I first conceived of writing this book. Motivated by my own need for answers, I knew that others, too, wanted broader knowledge. Like me, they would welcome the chance to move beyond the static information of the past. And even if immediate success eluded me (would I find a publisher? would my writing hit the mark?), communicating what I had learned, I was bold enough to think, could alter African culture, both in the Diaspora, –including where I live, in Germany–, and in Africa. For traditions responsible for FGM and the risk it poses to girls’ health are cultural, and therefore stubborn, but culture and destiny can change. Written and spoken words, sincerity and conscientious action can realize African people’s aspirations for their children.
If coming generations are to become innovative, resourceful leaders, they need role models. I dared to use my education to become such a leader, at least insofar as memoir reaches out, explaining in this text which fixed beliefs permit the use of razors against girls and why my desire to see those girls escape the shadow of those blades can be realized after all.
When I was growing up in Kenya, I had a single option, to become someone’s wife. It was drilled into me that we are Maasai (or, speaking for my friends, Kikuyu) and … we were still a people apart. The past remained present and the present – its encroachments – were resisted. At times, these constant comparisons to the ways of life now slowly invading our domain made us feel that we were better than, although often enough less than, those practicing another culture.
Maria Kiminta. Photo by Britta Radike
But the other culture’s benefits –computers, cures for diseases, kidney transplants –have made me thankful, as an African woman, for the new technology, and gratitude trusts in change.
It is the source of my yearning to liberate children, above all, from the emotional and cultural bondage that molded us and affected our whole lives. I would say to my people, please focus on today and let go of the past. Choose to alter – culture and yourselves.
Rooted as it is in the past, FGM must end.
I am a Maasai, and I was subjected to female genital mutilation. Although commonly called “circumcision” by people not (yet) ready to abandon the practice, the rite involves slicing off parts of the visible female genitalia or otherwise injuring sexual organs for reasons other than malignancy, malformation or illness. Not medically prescribed, the ‘surgery’ answers cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic mandates. Recent reports observe a shift – minor among the Maasai — towards medicalization of the process, now increasingly offered by trained personnel ostensibly to limit side effects and pain. But in case you are tempted to smile, this is not a positive development and is, in fact, strongly opposed by, among others, the Inter-African Committee.
A long-standing cultural practice, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not limited to my community but prevails equally in other pastoral ethnic groups. Although girls between four and ten are its most frequent victims, it takes place at any age from infancy through adolescence. Although thirteen to sixteen years had been preferred where I grew up, now, to avoid detection by authorities, clitoridectomy is often performed on babies.
As children, we were meant to believe that FGM is a ‘good tradition’. This would be elaborated to us by the old women and grandparents during evening story-telling where values and morals were imparted. Then we also learned that the smooth flow of a girl’s whole life depended entirely upon her undergoing FGM so that refusing became as unthinkable as the dire future predicted for the child left unshorn. Indeed, no one ever talked about what could go wrong – and certainly not the extreme pain that segues into torture. Instead everything was meant to encourage us to accept the knife, abandoning resistance or fear. And so we, too, celebrated these amputations, viewing them as bestowing on initiates increased respect and enhanced status. Showered with numerous gifts, the graduate, no longer a child, would have become a woman and an asset to the group.
Festivities for kids
During the ceremonies, we young children would be allowed to eat, feast and dance to the traditional jig whose text lauded and praised the courageous who have just been cut. Ironically, beforehand, we were never permitted anywhere near the ‘circumcision’ rooms where screams would surely have frightened us away. Nor were we allowed to visit the victims. Only after they had healed would we see them again. Otherwise, we would have known how inhumanely they had been treated. In fact, the older girls would be isolated on a different homestead far from uncircumcised children, to remain there until their bodies had mended and resumed normal function. To limit our interactions, the elders warned us that because these girls had now been turned into ‘adults’, they had become off limits to us kids. We were forbidden to mingle or play with them.
For you see, the ‘circumcised’ now belonged to a different, advanced ‘age set’. Only after we too had confronted the razor would we be permitted to fool around, hang out, or take care of chores together. Our elders told us that girls who have been ‘circumcised’ now had a special ‘status’ and deserved to be treated differently — better than the way we were treated. During recovery, they were prepared special meals, treats also promised to us once we had become candidates ourselves. Of course, this made us jealous. The favor showered on that season’s ‘chosen’ made every child long for the blade.
All these efforts that shielded us from the harsh realities of the procedure pushed us to admire and even desire it. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the elevated social status that came with it?
To understand the psychology here, you must be aware that, as kids, we were systematically humiliated in ways I now know to have gone against children’s rights. We were deceived by all means possible, tricked into loving a so-called ‘good practice’ because of its artificial ‘positive’ change. No one ever mentioned long-term negative effects. Only afterward did reality dawn on me, and I realized that, for the girl child, adverse consequences far outweigh anything good.
Whilst an adult is free to submit herself to the ritual, a child without formed judgment never ‘consents’. She simply undergoes the mutilation (which in this case is irrevocable) while she is totally vulnerable. The child’s rights are violated since children are not consulted nor given a choice about facing the knife. Instead, for years, their minds have been manipulated by the old women who want girls to think ‘circumcision’ is what they need most in their lives.
As Maria Kiminta writes in the Afterword:
Fortunate to attend university in Nairobi, I pursued my interest in advancing women’s human rights in various villages but then traded my dream of advocating human betterment for a more pragmatic career in sales. My first job in a women’s clothing store led to engagement to the owner’s son followed by marriage and moving to Germany. Europe has enabled me to return to my passion for helping women discover the irrelevance and detriment to health of the ritual passage so many of us had been through. I aim to promote confidence and education among Maasai girls.