In Kenya, Alternative Rites of Passage are offering girls a life-saving alternative to ‘the cut’

In Kenya, Alternative Rites of Passage are offering girls a life-saving alternative to ‘the cut'

Agnes Pareiyo, the director and founder of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and chair of the Kenya Anti-FGM Board (second from left on the front line) stands with some of the young Maasai girls (and their parents) who have just completed an Alternative Rites of Passage programme, on 22 August 2018 in Narok Country, Kenya.

(Christabel Ligami)

“I will never be confused, I will not be exploited, I will never accept to be circumcised, I am a changed girl. We are the agents of change!” This was the impassioned chant of 85 girls at Eselenkei Primary School in Narok County in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. Dressed in red and orange T-shirts bearing the message ‘Stop FGM [female genital mutilation]’ at the front and ‘Eyeu Intoiye Enkisuma’ (meaning ‘Girls Need an Education’ in Maa) at the back, the girls were all smiles as they sang and danced to traditional Maasai songs.

On 22 August 2018, this group of girls aged 10 and above, graduated from girlhood after finishing a four-day, residential Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) training programme, a practice that allows Maasai girls to transition into womanhood without being circumcised, as their culture demands.

Although Kenya has banned the practice of FGM it still occurs, particularly amongst semi-nomadic tribes like the Maasai and Samburu. Like in other parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia is a dangerous cultural practice rooted in ideas of modesty, hygiene and ‘purity’. However, FGM often has serious adverse health effects such as incontinence, repeated infections which can lead to infertility, life-threatening problems during childbirth and girls even die as a result of the procedure due to massive loss of blood and infections.

Thirteen-year-old Evelyne Suru is one of tens of thousands of girls across Kenya to have completed the ARP training. The training is run by different groups and organisations across the country, and while it can be adapted to incorporate different cultural elements, all follow the same curriculum designed by the Kenya Anti-FGM Board, a semi-autonomous government agency established in 2013 following the enactment of the 2011 Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act.

Speaking to Equal Times on the day of her graduation in Narok County, Evelyne, a standard seven pupil born into a family of 11, says she is lucky: she has five older sisters who were all circumcised and then married without finishing school. This was almost her fate – in fact her parents pulled her out of school at the age of 10 so that she could be circumcised. “But I refused to be cut because my aunty had told me that it was dangerous because I could either bleed too much or even die in the process. This stuck in my head.”

In the Maasai community, once a girl is circumcised, she is considered a woman who is ready for marriage, no matter her age. Marriage is very important because the girl’s dowry (in form of cattle) brings wealth to the family and marriage is synonymous with high status in the community.

But Evelyne made a rare choice to go against her family and her community’s expectations. She is currently estranged from her parents and lives with her aunty, a schoolteacher, who is determined to make sure that Evelyne continues with her education. “My mother kept on telling me that I would not be a woman if I was not cut and that no man would marry me. She said no one would not want to be close to me because I would smell bad to them,” Evelyne recalls. “But I am fine and safe staying with my aunty.”

Evelyne said the ARP ceremony has helped her to understand exactly what FGM is and why it is dangerous. “I have no fear to even tell my friends that I am not cut. I have learnt a lot about myself and how to take care of myself.”

“Children were giving birth to children”

Organised by the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (a Narok-based organisation that works to eradicate FGM and early childhood marriage) the ARP ceremony is conducted twice a year in August and December (also known as ‘cutting season’), as this is the time of the year when schools are closed for the holidays and girls are most frequently circumcised.

Loise Kaleke, an ARP facilitator/trainer in Narok told Equal Times that during the four days, the girls are taught Maasai morals, traditions and culture, as well as about sexuality, health and general life skills. At the end of the programme, they are given certificates to confirm their ‘transition into womanhood’.

“The training focuses on what FGM is, the dangers of FGM and why they shouldn’t undergo it. We also talk about education, child rights, sexual abuse, substance abuse, self-esteem, good health, culture and harmful traditions,” says Kaleke, adding that the aim is to empower the girls to make the best choices for their own futures and to enable them to become ambassadors about the importance of girls’ education and the dangers of FGM. “That’s why they say they are now the agents of change,” she explains.

The former teacher says she became joined the anti-FGM initiative after she witness many of her female students drop out of school in order to undergo ‘the cut’ and then get married. Some of these girls, she says, were 10 years old and younger.

“These were children giving birth to children, and they could not take care of them. The burden ends up coming back to their mothers,” says Kaleke, thus compounding existing levels of poverty and social exclusion. “Something had to be done, so I teamed up with other women in my community and we started talking to people about the dangers of FGM.”

She says that change was difficult in the beginning. “I lost many friends and relatives as a result but now we are seeing more people, including men, accept that we need to stop cutting girls and marrying them off early.”

Maasai men tend to have the final say on any decisions in their community, which is why the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative is working closely with husbands and fathers to sensitise them about the dangers of FGM.

To mobilise the girls for the ARP, the so-called “godmothers” (who look after the girls during the programme), work with the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative to spread the word via various schools, church and community networks to explain what the ARP is and why it is important for girls to attend – with the consent of their parents or guardians.

“Unlike before where we faced resistance and even threats to our lives, these days it is a little easier to talk to the people about FGM and ARP because people are aware of the law and they have seen people being arrested for practicing FGM,” says Hellen Kilusu, one of the godmothers from Ntulele, a village in Narok County. However, she says that some of the parents falsely assume that the ARP is an automatic scholarship for their girls to go to better schools. “We are still trying our best to make them understand this,” she said.

Eradication of FGM by 2030

Jackson Kiok, a 42-year-old father-of-three and pastor from Ntulele, is one of the local men working closely with the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative on the ARP training. “I have six sisters and they were all circumcised,” he tells Equal Times. Growing up I thought it was the best thing for girls. But when I joined the church and became a leader, I learnt that FGM is bad for women and has to be stopped,” he says.

“At my church and in my community, I preach against it. All my three girls are here for the ARP so that they can learn what FGM is all about and not just be told its bad by me, their father.”

Coupled with the FGM ban, years of ARP training is slowly beginning to have a positive impact. According to Kenya’s 2014 Demographic Health Survey, only 21 per cent of women in the country were circumcised in 2013, compared with 27 per cent in 2008-09 and 32 per cent in 2003. But a number of communities still have very high FGM rates: 94 per cent of Somali-Kenyan women and girls still undergo FGM as do 92 per cent of Kisii women and girls, 87 per cent of Samburus and 78 per cent of Maasai.

Agnes Pareiyo, the director and founder of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative was recently appointed chair of the Kenya Anti-FGM Board, which has a mandate to co-ordinate public awareness programmes against the practice of FGM and advise the government on matters relating to FGM, as well as the implementation of the 2011 Act.

She tells Equal Times that even though there has been progress in the fight against FGM, the main challenge is the implementation of the ban at a grassroots level: “We have some government officials who still find it hard to arrest an FGM offender because they still see FGM as part of their culture. As the Anti-FGM Board chair, my focus now is creating awareness of the law and working closely with the government on implementing it.”

The goal, she tells Equal Times, is the complete eradication of FGM in Kenya by 2030.

It is an ambitious target but there are a multitude of partners working towards the same objective. Peter Ofware, programme director for Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn and Child Health at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) – one of Africa’s largest and oldest health NGOs – tells Equal Times that his organisation is also championing the cause for a FGM-free Africa through programmes such as its own ARP training for girls and boys over the age of nine.

“AMREF propagates the community-led ARP approach to fight FGM by engaging families and communities so that they can make a collective and coordinated choice to abandon the practice of FGM, and so that no single girl or family is disadvantaged by the decision,” says Dr Ofware.

Over 16,000 girls have undergone AMREF’s ARP programme since 2009. “ARP takes away ‘the cut’ while retaining important cultural aspects such as sexual education, blessings by elders and keeping girls in school,” he says, thus proving that the pride and celebration of one’s culture doesn’t have to mean the harming of girls.