KENYA: US, Kenya Partner To End Female 'Cut'

The morning sun splashes its mild rays across the green beautiful ridges of Trans Mara District. This creates a spectacular vista with teenage girls, clad in T-Shirts emblazoned with the US and Kenyan flags, lining the roadside in readiness for an anti-Female Genital Mutilation walk and run.

American Ambassador to Kenya, Mr Michael Ranneberger, joins Lucy Lemaiyan in a jig after flagging off the walk. Picture by Anne Kamoni

US Ambassador, Mr Michael Ranneberger, is set to flag off the event.

But the beautiful landscape and its welcoming people contrasts with what young girls here undergo.

In the meantime, some high school girls, accompanied by an elderly woman, shyly talk about FGM.

Mynel Nyawira, 17, illustrates the challenges of fighting FGM in the area.

She and her mother rescued a girl who did not want to be circumcised. "She ran away from home after her parents disowned her, but they later accused us of confining their daughter," narrates Nyawira.

"When we reported the matter to the chief, he did not object to the girl’s decision to avoid the knife, but he ordered her to go back home. Right now, we do not know where she is."

This is the frustrating experience many young girls go through in their attempt to flee the circumciser’s knife. Although FGM was outlawed in 2001 after the enactment of the Children’s Act, the practice continues unabated. Yet the law makes it illegal for anyone to subject a child to any harmful acts.

The culture is so entrenched, that some nurses and other medical personnel now circumcise girls in hospitals to avoid detection by law enforcers. However, reports indicate that the practice declined by seven per cent between 1998 and 2003. This is attributed to presidential decrees in 1982 and 1989, followed by a formal ban in 2001.

United Nations Children’s Education Fund says the practice is carried out in 60 of the country’s 75 districts.

Nyawira says some communities, like the Maasai, are reluctant to abandon the tradition.

"Many school girls are still forced to undergo the cut, which is unfortunate because they should be let to decide what they want to do with their lives," says the Form Four student at Kilgoris Girls’ High School.

"Recently, a girl died due to excessive bleeding at Magita Hospital," says Irene Seneyia, another student at the school.

She says stopping female circumcision should be viewed as a matter of life and death, rather than an attempt to fight culture.

The US Ambassador could not agree more.

"FGM is a killer. Girls die due to bleeding and infections while pregnant women suffer life threatening conditions during childbirth, which could also kill the unborn baby," Ranneberger told the gathering during the May 7 awareness walk.

"Stated in its starkest terms, there are mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who are dead today and more who will die tomorrow because of the practice."

When a girl undergoes the cut, family friends shower the parents with gifts, mainly cows, as a sign of appreciation. This is because the girl is viewed as having achieved a crucial rite of passage, of transiting from childhood to womanhood, thus preparing her for marriage.

Uncircumcised girls discriminates

Many parents pressure their underage daughters to undergo circumcision because of the temptation of the gifts, whereby cows among the Maasai are a sign of wealth.

Mrs Mary Ene Yaasi, a traditional circumciser, who has quit the trade, says the community discriminates against uncircumcised girls.

"They are rejected by men because they are viewed as immature. They are also seen as unclean and people refuse to eat food they have cooked," says Yaasi.

She says young men are under constant pressure from their parents, peers and the entire community to woo only circumcised girls for marriage.

As a result, some girls who had earlier shunned circumcision, are forced to rescind their decisions out of the desire to get married.

"Sometimes, parents get a ‘pleasant surprise’ when a girl who had rejected circumcision suddenly says she wants to undergo the rite," says Yaasi.

This rejection of uncircumcised girls by their communities has led to a rapid rise in intermarriages especially among the educated girls. Although the Maasai culture does not encourage intermarriages, the girls are left with no option.

Mr Stephen ole Naiguta, co-ordinator of the Ecumenical Centre for Justice and Peace, in the district, says intermarriages are on the rise as uncircumcised Maasai women look for ‘other homes’ where they can find acceptance. Culture enthusiasts have expressed fears that the trend might lead to the extinction of the Maasai, which is renowned for its rich cultural values.

Naiguta says in cases where some Maasai men marry uncircumcised women, they have to contend with taunts from peers. This compels them to collude with midwives to perform the cut on their wives during delivery, to save them the ridicule.

The issue is further compounded by the absence of a rescue centre in the area. St Joseph Girls’ Boarding Primary School currently serves the purpose at least for now with 63 girls rescued from FGM and early marriages being nurtured to realise their full potential.

The pledge by Kilgoris MP and Immigration minister, Mr Gideon Konchellah, to construct rescue centres might bring a glimmer of hope to the girls.

As part of a US-Kenya partnership, Ranneberger says his country is helping to curb FGM through activities focused on education and awareness, provision of health information and services, empowerment of women, and helping enforce laws.

The US is supporting the education of 3,000 girls through the Ambassador’s Girls Scholarship Programme. One component of this scholarship is the Maasai Education Initiative that has rescued more than 200 girls from early marriages and FGM.

But the envoy says his country can only help, adding that the onus of ending the practice lies with the community and leaders.

And perhaps 80-year-old Manyaroo Olerkoisa seems to be on the right path of liberating this community. "First, I must thank you for coming to educate us on this issue," he told the envoy.

"This is a modern world. It is the girl who should have the final say on circumcision. Many tribes do not practice female circumcision but their women still give birth," he said with the wisdom that comes with his age.

The girls participating in the event have ditched circumcision for an alternative rite of passage. And they get self-effacing support from a representative of the world’s superpower.

Ranneberger encourages the girls to stand by their decisions.

"I am a father of a 16-year-old daughter growing into a beautiful young woman, with all the hopes and anxieties that adolescents have. So I feel a particular connection with the girls here today," he said.

"The situation facing girls in the area affects education, resulting in underdevelopment," says Mrs Ruth Konchellah, Director of Cherish Others, a local Non-Governmental Organisation involved in anti-FGM campaigns. The organisation has been working with the provincial administration to rescue girls from the cut and early marriages.

Amnesty International says about 135 million girls and women in the world have undergone FGM, and two million girls a year are at risk of mutilation. It is extensively practised in Africa.

The practice is also common in some countries in the Middle East. The immigrant communities in parts of Asia and the Pacific, North and Latin America and Europe, also practise it.

In industrialised countries, female circumcision occurs predominantly among immigrants from countries where FGM is practised.

It has been reported in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the US.

Amnesty International reports that girls in industrialised countries are sometimes operated on illegally by doctors from their own communities who reside there. More frequently, traditional practitioners are brought into the country or girls are sent abroad for circumcision.

Girls rescinding their decisions for fear of rejection and young men being pressured to marry circumcised women, stand in the way of eradicating this practice in Trans Mara.

SOURCE: The Standard

AUTHOR: Peter Opiyo

URL: Click here

DATE: 11/07/2007

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