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Monday, February 22, 2010

Kenya: A call to end female genital mutilation

February 19, 2010
By Lucy Murunga -  World Vision

At the age of only eleven years, Irene was forced to run away from her home to escape what the community made her believe was a traditional obligation - female genital mutilation.

Through the support of World Vision, Irene has been offered a safe haven in a rescue centre that accommodates girls who have been circumcised against their wish or who, like her, are escaping the practice.

World Vision’s programme manager in the Marigat area of Kenya, Pamela Wamalwa, expresses optimism in World Vision's anti-mutilation campaign. The prevalence of genital cutting and early marriage is slowly but steadily decreasing in the area.

“We have been working closely with community members, educating them on the negative effects,” explains Wamalwa. Instead of the traditional ceremony in which the girls had to be circumcised, now they undergo an alternative rite of passage. Communities maintain the rituals that lead adolescent girls to womanhood but exclude the dangerous cutting.

Finding new ways to make a living

Female circumcisers, who did not want to be identified for fear of being condemned, expressed their willingness to stop the practice only if the government assisted them with alternative income generating activities.

Through KADET, a microfinance unit of World Vision, many women are able to access loans to start up small businesses.

“Through the organisation’s projects in the [programme area] like water, food security, microfinance and education, community members are keener on development,” explains Wamalwa.

Alternative rite of passage

Tabitha Parteneu, World Vision’s girl child project coordinator cannot hide her joy as she prepares more than 80 girls for graduation.

She explains why the alternative rite of passage is such an important part of the girls upbringing while removing the risks of bleeding, blood poisoning, shock and childbirth problems that often follow female genital mutilation, also called FGM.

“We put the girls in a secluded place for one or two weeks and train them on the effects of FGM, early marriage and HIV and AIDS,” she explains.

“We also train them on life skills, the advantages of not undergoing FGM and address attitude change. We train the boys as well to make them understand why girls do not have to undergo circumcision.”

This December, 89 girls were awarded certificates and 27 boys trained. The ceremony is held every April, August and December.

Irene has just graduated. “I am very happy today because I went through [the rite], and have graduated to adulthood without losing my dignity,” she says.

Poverty and early marriage

Zakayo Lolpejalai, World Vision programme manager for the North Rift area in Kenya, says that the community has become so enslaved to the retrogressive beliefs that girls have no say in what happens to their bodies. Society makes decisions for them and holds that once the girls are circumcised then they are ready for marriage.

“More often than not, the girls are married off to men old enough to be their grandfather,” he adds. "The parents receive blankets, sugar and tobacco in exchange for the girls.”

Lolpejalai also cites poverty as the major causes of early marriages. The sentiment is echoed by Samuel Lerono, a member of the Ilchamus Moran dancers. Lerono narrates how his two sisters were married off in their early teenage years.

“We held celebrations all night and the next day my sisters were gone,” he explains. "Maybe if we had refused to conform to traditions things would have been different. I vowed the same will not happen to my daughters.”

Lerono deems it unfair to deny the girls education and a decent life by resigning them to tradition. He sings in all community gatherings his message, “stop FGM, and educate the girls”. He makes an appeal to his fellow parents to embrace change, emphasising that mutilating girls is a barbaric and archaic act that must be shunned.

An important role for government

As the fight against the practice goes on among the Njemps community in the Baringo Central area, law enforcement officers and political leaders in the region are playing their part. Leaders have stated in different gatherings that the vice must be rooted out for good.

Peter Kitilit, an administrative officer in the region says they have partnered with World Vision to ensure that girls are protected and the people who practice female circumcision are apprehended.

“We have managed to educate parents in local gatherings and convince them that circumcising girls is not a gate into womanhood. For those who do not cooperate we let the law deal with them,” he explains.

According to Kitilit, prevalence has decreased by 25%.

Ending FGM

Seventeen-year-old Daisy has just completed her high school education. “I said 'no' to FGM because I knew the dangers,” she says, adding that the alternative rite “is a decent way of transitioning girls to adulthood without exposing them to health complications."

Sixty-year-old Napunyu Letaparkwe practised girls’ circumcision for more than thirty years. Now she has stopped. “I have heard of girls who bled to death during the process,” she says.

Caroline Nalianya, child rights national coordinator at World Vision Kenya, says female genital mutilation is a child protection issue. “The children and sexual offences acts passed in 2006 outlaws FGM,” she explains.

“FGM affects the education of the girl child, causing premature school drop-outs and early marriage. The girl's life stops the moment she is married off, hence denying her life in all its fullness. FGM infringes the rights of the girl child. It is a health right for them not to be circumcised.

“World Vision is committed to the protection and well-being of all children in Kenya and through partnership with the ministry of education and other government departments, we have been able to tap into funds set aside for women to provide an alternative source of income to female circumcisers,” explains Nalianya.

Changing attitudes

The area Member of Parliament, Hon. Sammy Mwaita, expresses appreciation for World Vision's efforts to raise public awareness through education campaigns and encouraging alternative rites of passage.

World Vision has assisted the community through the construction of two dormitories which have acted as rescue centres for girls as they wait to be reconciled with their parents.

“We are dealing with people who are deeply entrenched in cultural beliefs. At times, when you tell them to abandon the FGM practice, they feel like they are being coerced into discarding their culture,” explains Mwaita.

“We as the leadership in this area want to emphasise that FGM is not an obligation. It lowers the dignity of women." We have role models who have succeeded in the community because they got an education which could have been impossible if they saluted tradition,” he continues.

"Attitude change takes time. We will meet resistance and the practice cannot be stopped overnight, but the efforts will go a long way.”