Genital Mutilation

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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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.

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