(Photo: Armstrong Too/Amref Health Africa)
23 August 2016 – In a significant shift from tradition, Maasai elders in Loitoktok, in Kenya’s Kajiado County, blessed 363 girls who had chosen to forego traditional Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a rite of initiation into womanhood. Instead, the girls went through an Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) ceremony where they graduated to womanhood with their cultural dignity intact, but without having to undergo the harmful cut.
The colorful celebration, held in the Lenkisim sub-location on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, was a significant win against the harmful, illegal practice of FGM. The event was attended by the Deputy Governor for Kajiado, Mr Paul Ntiati, the chairperson of the National Anti-FGM Board Linah Jebii Kilimo, Amref Health Africa Group Chief Executive Officer Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Amref Kenya Country Director Dr Meshack Ndirangu and various county and community leaders.
Since 2009, Amref Health Africa has supported communities in Kajiado and Samburu counties to hold Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) ceremonies that steer girls away from the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. Instead the girls are able to stay in school and to escape the death, disability and health complications brought on by FGM. So far, 10,500 girls have passed through the program.
Friday’s graduation was preceded by two days of lessons on Maasai values and traditions, sexuality and sexual health issues, and life skills. For the first time, the ARP graduates included 137 boys, who have been trained as ARP ambassadors and as protectors of girls against stigmatization because of their choice not to undergo FGM.
Girls happy to be FGM-free during the ceremony. (Photo: Amref Health Africa)
In Kenya, 100,000 girls undergo FGM every year. Consequently, 21 per cent of girls and women in Kenya (around 2.5 million) have undergone the cut, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014. This is despite the documented risks of FGM such as fatalities resulting from excessive bleeding, psychological trauma, HIV resulting from sharing of unsterilized blades and complications in childbirth.
A dangerous, life-threatening and extremely painful ritual, cutting is against the law in most African countries. FGM not only causes serious health problems, but as soon as a girl is 'cut', she is considered a 'woman' and ready for marriage, no matter how young. She is also expected to leave school, which leads to fewer opportunities for girls.
The biggest challenge in ending FGM has always been the fact that it is culturally entrenched, and has the longstanding support of cultural leaders. Amref Health Africa has secured the support of influential groups like Maasai elders and morans (the younger men of these communities), enabling the ARP program to grow. The elders were a significant part of the graduation, offering traditional signs of blessings, such as pouring cow’s milk, and encouraging them to continue with their education.
In addition to cultural elders and local leadership, Amref Health Africa has also been able to win the support of traditional birth attendants (TBAs), who typically double up as female circumcisers.
The local leadership has also come out to support the ARP program and to take a firm stand against FGM. “The Laws of Kenya must be upheld. FGM must not be allowed, and we will see to it that anyone caught subjecting young girls to this practice is dealt with appropriately,” said area Chief Wilson Lekutuk.
Anti-FGM Board chairperson, Honorable Kilimo spelt out the provisions of the law on FGM, including the penalties for those who transgressed it.
“ARP allows girls to stay in school and contribute positively to the socio-economic growth of their communities and country,” observed Dr. Gitahi, adding that Amref Health Africa is committed to continuing the fight against FGM in Africa.