New trends in FGM pose a challenge to education
Narok County is world famous for its breath-taking environment and wild animals in the Maasai Mara National Park.
This is because it is home to the big five game animals, namely the lions, elephants, cheetahs, buffalos, and rhinos. However, Narok is most famed for the great trek by the wildebeest that has come to be known as the eighth wonder of the world.
However, the well-endowed county that borders Tanzania also has a not so pleasant image as it leads in violating women’s rights through practising the outlawed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
According to Maasai cultural tradition a woman and/or girl is not complete until they undergo the cut.
This then makes the rite of passage into womanhood.
Highest burden of FGM
In 2011 the Government outlawed the harmful practice. Despite the law being in place, Female Genital Mutilation continues behind the scene with support of some elders, parents and politicians. Narok County is one of the 17 counties with highest burden of FGM cases. This makes it a challenge for the girls to continue their education because immediately after the cut they are married off.
To counter this emerging trend among those still practicing the cut, Anti-FGM crusaders have now been forced to come up with alternative methods of dealing with the menace as well as preserving cultures including that of the Maasai.
A few kilometres from Narok town is Enkesenkule Girls School, a safe house run under Tarsaru Foundation.
Female voices are heard as one enters the school. These are girls aged as young as eight years old and according to Maasai Culture they are already adults and ought to be married.
Alternative rite of passage
However, these girls have decided otherwise. They are going to transit to adulthood, through an alternative rite of passage without having to face the knife.
After a month of vigorous training on reproductive health, sexuality and life skills in the institute, they are graduating to mark their transition to adulthood.
During the one month training they were taught about both bad and good culture, self grooming as well as how to deal with Gender Based Violence normally the case after they have undergone circumcision.
“We train them on issues of culture, self confidence, good grooming, dieting and identity,” says Loice Kaleke, one of the trainers at the institute.
She adds: “We also teach them self-defence. This is so they can defend themselves against sexual violence among other forms of GBV.”
Still in this safe house, there are also girls who were rescued from early marriages.
Rhoda Naserian is one of them and vividly remembers how she was robbed of her pride as a woman at the tender age of eight years.
“We were nine girls and I was the youngest. The other girls did not object to the cut but I was against it,” explains Naserian. She says: “I screamed and my father was called and told I had refused to be cut.”
Naserian noes: “Because of my resistance the women circumcising us decided to be brutal on me and did it haphazardly so that my father would be given less dowry.”
However, what is still fresh in her mind is how her father tried to marry her off at the age of nine to be a fourth wife to a much older man.
Despite her young age this is not what Naserian wanted for herself. She managed to escape and is now back in school pursuing her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“That day my father had invited the whole village. Everyone came with gifts; some brought me cups and plates that I was going to use in my matrimonial home,” recalls Naserian. She explains: “However, I tricked them and late in the night I took my clothes packed them in a sack and hid them in a bush.”
In the morning, Naserian left the house with the excuse that she was going to posho mill to get flour for the visitors.
Silvia Salula, a Form Three student shares the same story. At the age of seven, she was forced to undergo the cut but managed to escape from her matrimonial home where she had been married off to a 60-year-old man.
“The experience was painful. I almost bled to death. But even if I wanted to run away how could I do it?” Salula poses. “I was overpowered by five women. All I remember was the pain and how I threw up at the sight of blood.”
Salula rejected her father’s move to be married off and because of that she was disowned by her family for many years.
“I remember when my father learnt I had sought refuge in a school and my mother visited me. She was given a thorough beating and asked why she had come to see me yet I had shamed him by running away when my dowry had already been paid,” says Salula.
Maureen Nailante who also lives the safe house has not seen her parents for nine years.
“My father had hinted to me that I was going to be circumcised but that night I fled. I am not sure that they know where I am,” says Nailante.
As the three join the rest who have a chance of charting the path to their future, others are not so lucky. A lot still need to be done to educate the community on benefits of girl child education and that girls do have a right over what happens to their bodies.
According to Agnes Leina, a board member at the Anti-FGM Board, the war is far from being won as the cultural practice is deeply rooted in the community and will take ages to get rid of.
Leina says not even the harsh Anti-FGM law of 2011 can stop the Maasai from circumcising their girls.
“This is not a sickness whereby we can say let’s get a vaccine to stop it. They will still cut their girls because it is a tradition,” notes Leina. She poses: “You will hear them saying go and be cleansed and who would like her daughter to be cleansed?”
The negative effects of FGM that many have suffered does not seem to be a cause of concern and even using this to advocate against the practice falls on deaf ears.
Despite leaders from the community being enlightened about the negative effects of the practice, they cannot do much to stop the cultural practice and most are also slaves of culture often exhibiting double standards.
“If we had our leaders stand up and say ‘let’s stop FGM’, it will end because in our community we do respect leaders. However, who among them will dare stand up and speak against their own culture and risk losing their votes? They will never do that,” explains Leina.
Anti-FGM Board chair Jebii Kilimo is also concerned that communities who still promote the harmful practice have devised ways of disguising it, making it difficult for the Board to detect or deter it.
“We are doing well at the national level at prevalence of 21 percent but in the few communities where FGM is highly esteemed, the prevalence is more than 90 percent,” explains Kilimo. She notes: “These people nowadays do not hold ceremonies as before and now make it look like a family affair hence it’s difficult to suspect.”