250 Kenyan girls say no to female circumcision

As the Girl Summit in London calls for an end to female genital mutilation, some Kenyan communities are finding new ways to celebrate their girls reaching womanhood.

As the Girl Summit in London calls for an end to female genital mutilation, some Kenyan communities are finding new ways to celebrate their girls reaching womanhood.

“My friends used to laugh at me, calling me names just because I am not like them culturally,” says 19 year old Mercy Titeu, from Kajiado County. “The difference is because I refused to be circumcised and to give out my dignity. What baffled me more was the myth that if I am not cut I won’t get married and, even if I do, my husband won’t respect me.”

But things are changing. Like Mercy, other girls from Kajiado are saying no to the cut – with the support of their communities. At a ceremony organised by Amref Health Africa in May 2014, ten Maasai cultural elders from Entasopia in Kajiado County vowed to end female genital mutilation. The ceremony paved the way for more than 250 girls to undergo an alternative rite of passage, graduating to womanhood without having their genitals cut.

First lady Margaret Kenyatta, who attended the occasion, called on other cultural elders to let girls become women without the cut. She also commended the Entasopia elders as “noble and exemplary” for their bravery in making a public denunciation ceremony against female circumcision.

The alternative rite of passage gives communities the opportunity to do away with the cut, which is the harmful part of the ceremony, while retaining traditional rituals in the cultural process of girls’ initiation from childhood to adulthood.

Risk of HIV infection

According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

FGM is a clear risk factor in HIV infection, although there is a lack of research to evidence the link. During cutting ceremonies one blade is frequently used to cut all the girls. Even more significantly for HIV transmission, the girls are then stitched so tightly that first sex is traumatic, often forced, resulting in the loss of blood, in addition to the usual bodily fluids. According to UNAIDS, the increased prevalence of herpes in women subjected to female genital mutilation may also increase the risk for HIV infection.

FGM also has other negative sexual and reproductive health implications, including infections resulting from the cutting, and trauma and complications during childbirth.

Empowered to say no

Mercy, who is the daughter of Chief Elijah Seren of Olkiramatian, explains how she escaped the cut. “Were it not because of empowerment and education from Amref, which came to our school, I would have been circumcised. They educated us on the effects and side effects of female genital cutting and gave us an alternative rite of passage programme which helped me to educate my family and friends. I convinced my parents, who supported my decision not to undergo the torture.”

Amref Health Africa has been implementing the Entito Ee Maa project in Kenya since 2012, targeting nomadic communities practising FGM. The alternative rite of passage is a three-day training session for the girls aged 6-19. The girls are educated on reproductive health, prevention of HIV, gender-based violence, personal hygiene, female genital cutting and its side effects, and the alternative rite of passage.

According to Mercy, a lack of information has led to some of her friends dying, while others got married unwillingly. Her friends use to tell her how torturing the act is, but they can’t oppose it because of cultural pressure.

Girls complete schooling

Communities which have adopted alternative rite of passage ceremonies are reaping the rewards that come with adapting to change. Girls who have not been circumcised are more likely to stay in school and are less likely to get pregnant or married early.

Margaret Kenyatta said: “This decision will guarantee many girls will complete their primary, secondary and college education to become women who make significant contribution to their community and to their country. It is the assurance of healthier lives for the girls and the realisation of their personal potential. It is a mark of honour and respect to the personal dignity of these girls. Further, it is an affirmation to the girls that their community accepts and respects them as women without the cut.”

Her Excellency also challenged the community and girls to perceive education as a rite of passage due to its competitive design and opportunities that educated women are able to achieve.

Read more about HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights