USA/KENYA: Kennewick Woman to Speak on Mutilation
Rachael Tengbom of Kennewick is fighting a centuries-old African tradition one girl at a time.
Tengbom is a native of the Maasai tribe who started an organization called Voices of Hope that rescues girls in her home of Kajiado, Kenya, from the practices of female genital mutilation and arranged marriages.
Voices of Hope is based in Kennewick, where Tengbom now lives with her husband and two daughters, and provides Maasai girls with a college education and a safe place to live until they're ready to embark upon careers of their own.
She'll give a presentation about the Maasai culture and need for intervention as part of a fundraising event at Columbia Basin College in Pasco starting at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tengbom's presentation starts at 3 p.m.
Voices of Hope board member Theo Dobie hopes that audiences will come away from the presentation with a greater awareness about female genital mutilation and its effect on young African women.
"I think a lot of people aren't familiar with the term FGM," Dobie said. "They think it is a thing of the past. It is alive and well, unfortunately."
The practice of female genital mutilation or cutting in its different forms involves partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical purposes, according to the World Health Organization.
Long-term complications of the procedure can include cysts, infertility and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
WHO reports that 3 million girls are cut each year. Most of them are younger than 15. Anywhere from 100 million to 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the effects of being cut.
To outsiders, the practice can seem barbaric, but to the Maasai, it's part of traditional life, and the tribe is proud of its culture, Tengbom said.
Genital cutting is a rite of passage for Maasai girls, marking their transition from girl to woman.
"A woman who has not gone through female circumcision is not an adult," Tengbom said.
Once a girl becomes an adult, tradition dictates that her father arrange a marriage, usually for the price of some cattle.
Voices of Hope runs a safe house where girls can stay without fear of retribution from male relatives, she said. Girls often are shunned by other Maasai if they don't undergo cutting and don't marry.
While living in the house, girls go through leadership training that encourages them to find their voice and speak out against practices that oppress women and affect their communities. They also are taught about sexual health and prevention of AIDS, which is ravaging Africa's population.
The rented house in Kajiado is home to 14 girls. Tengbom would like to build a bigger house so she can help more girls move toward the freedom education offers.
Tengbom realizes she can't save every girl, but every girl she does help can raise her voice and save others. Every girl who goes to college can become a leader in her community, and eventually tradition will change, even if it's one girl at a time.
AUTHOR: Michelle Dupler
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