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New Ritual Replaces Female Genital Mutilation

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Female genital mutilation rites are beginning to be replaced by an alternative rite of passage in Kenya known as "Cutting Through Words." The new ritual includes a week of seclusion and lessons on adult life.

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Female genital mutilation rites are beginning to be replaced by an alternative rite of passage in Kenya known as "Cutting Through Words." The new ritual includes a week of seclusion and lessons on adult life.
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Julie Maranya

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Anti-female genital mutilation crusader Julie Maranya tells the story of her circumcision with much resentment. Recollecting bits, vividly, of the day village women elders walked her to the circumciser's homestead and across a river to the maize plantations where they mutilated her, she cannot help getting angry.

That was 43 years ago when she was 7, and the vulgar circumcision song, the chants and ululations have refused to leave Maranya's mind.

"Regardless of my profuse bleeding, the women sang and ululated that I had become a wife of young-men, not boys anymore," said Maranya, now the director of the Julkei International Women and Youth Affairs, a women rights organization in Kenya. "They are still mutilating and cutting young girls, while they sing the same old songs they sang to me."

Even though million of women around the world are as angry as Maranya, female genital mutilation rites are still being performed in many parts of the world. About half of the rural districts of Kenya practice the rite; about 38 percent of Kenyan women have been circumcised. More than 100 million women are believed to be subject to varying forms of female genital mutilation across Africa and parts of western and southern Asia. In rural Kenya, the circumcision rites are usually carried out by traditional experts using crude knives and no anesthetic. The ceremony is performed in the early morning, when the weather is thought to be cold enough to numb the young girl's body. They charge a fee that may be as much as $6 per cut.

But the prospects of ending the rite in Kenya are higher as some communities adopt an alternative rite of passage in which they "circumcise" their girls through words. Known as "Ntanira na Mugambo" in the local language of the Ameru, a community on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, "Cutting Through Words" is a joint effort of rural families and the Kenyan national women's group, Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization.

New Rite Includes Week in Seclusion

The rite brings willing young girls together for a week in seclusion where they get traditional lessons about their future roles as women, parents and adults in the community. They are also taught about their personal health, reproduction, hygiene, communications skills, self-esteem and dealing with peer pressure. It is just like the traditional ritual, except that there is no cutting of their genitals.

Secluded, the girls remain indoors and can only be visited by previous initiates, female relatives or parents. A woman who is either an aunt or a friend is assigned the role of a supporter or "godmother." She ensures that the girl gets and understands family life education. The week's ceremony ends with a "graduation" at a chosen day of "coming of age," where religious, political and government leaders are invited to make speeches.

"The community joins the rituals. They dance, sing and feast with the initiates. The girls receive gifts from the project, parents and friends," said Ann Nzomo, an assistant program manager at the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization. "Through the songs, dances and drama, the girls announce they have left female genital mutilation."

At such a ceremony, the girls appeal to their elders to cease circumcising them, but let them complete their education, and then they will decide whether to be circumcised. They protest through the market centers, where they dance and sing traditional songs that urge their mothers not give them out for marriage.

"I see joy in the young girls' faces. It is an exciting day for me and I am delighted to see young women speaking for themselves," said Nzomo. "But we sometimes lose one or two to the traditional circumcisers," she warned.

The first "Cutting Through Words" ceremony occurred in 1996, when 30 families from Gatunga village in Tharaka, about 200 miles east of Nairobi, initiated their daughters through words. Since then, the alternative rite has been performed in three other communities of the Maasai and Kalenjins of the Rift Valley Province and the Abagusii of Western Kenya.

Nzomo says that a single-week ceremony costs about $4,000 dollars. The funds are spent in secluding the girls, feeding them and purchasing gifts for the girls.

"We have had no problem so far and we hope to replicate it in others areas," she said.

"It is feasible and sustainable. We chose those months that traditional rites are likely to occur to stage the alternative rite," adds Eva Mukhwana, a communication officer at the National Focal Point on Female Genital Mutilation, a coalition of organizations fighting to end the rite.

Rite May Face Serious Opposition

Priscilla Nangurai, headmistress of African Inland Church Primary Boarding School in Kajiado, Kenya, attended a rite of passage ceremony in Narok, one of the areas with highest number of cases of female genital mutilation. She expressed fears that the rite may face serious opposition in some areas.

"Local women I have talked to cannot see how a tradition they have carried out for so many years can be replaced by songs and dances," she said. "They are keen to understand what kinds of gifts are given to the girls on this. They want to know what kind of T-shirts are worn during the pass out (graduation) ceremony. They laughed it off when they hear that some get only a T-shirt," she added.

Priscilla Nangurai has been rescuing young girls from circumcision and early marriage among the Maasai, a herder community, and housing them at the Kajiado African Inland Church rescue center, where they are able to complete their education. The Kajiado rescue center is one of Forum for African Women Educationalists Centres of Excellence. The other three are in Senegal, Tanzania and Rwanda.

Nangurai explained that after aggressive campaigns started by women's lobbying groups, the Maasai parents responded by lowering the age of circumcision to as young as 4 years to 13 years, instead of 6 years to 18 years--a new development that could challenge the alternative rite.

"We need to tread carefully since female genital mutilation is deeply rooted into the culture. We can end it through education, advocacy and religion," added Nangurai.

Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.