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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kenyan program strives to replace cultural ritual of female genital mutilation

April 12, 2010
By Becky Oberg -

When a ritual with negative health consequences is firmly entrenched in a culture, how can one bring beneficial change while still honoring the cultural expectations?  Dr. Susan K. Chebet, a Kenyan scholar currently visiting Indianapolis, needs help to do just that.

Chebet is the executive director of Tumndo Ne Leel Support Group, a non-profit organization in Kenya seeking to end female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, or FGM) by replacing it with a culturally appropriate alternative rite of passage.  Chebet recently spoke to a Sunday school class at First Mennonite Church. 
Because Chebet is visiting Indiana as part of the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis-Moi University Strategic Alliance, her paper on Tumndo Ne Leel  is posted on IUPUI's web site.

According to Chebet's paper, FGM among the Kalenjin ethnic group starts with the circumcisor "pulling the clitoris and stinging it with leaves of a nettle plant ... that caused a swelling of the clitoris.  The application took several hours with such a strong pain that some initiates fainted during the process.  This was followed by the actual cutting of the entire clitoris and surrounding tissue of labia minora and labia majora after smearing it with flour to create a firm grip."

Chebet said all the Kalenjin females in a certain age-group undergo FGM together in December.  The remains of their removed external genitalia are placed on an altar, which symbolizes the eternal bond these women have with their age-mates.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM is recognized as a human rights violation.  Kenya is a signatory to many UN treaties banning FGM.  However, legislation has failed to stop it.

Operating on the belief that the only way to change a culture is to superimpose a new one from within, Chebet sought input from the community.  The resulting Tumndo Ne Leel (translated as "the new initiation rites for girls") curriculum closely resembles the rituals surrounding FGM.

Girls beginning the initiation go to the center, where they stay secluded from the public for seven to twenty-one days, depending on what resources are available.  While there, they learn their cultural taboos, morals and ethics.  They also learn about women's and children's rights, housekeeping, diet, nutrition, sexuality, positive self-esteem, substance abuse and domestic violence.  They are also encouraged to get an education, which ceases to be an option if they are circumcised.

At graduation, the women undergo a public initiation ceremony with specially trained Motirenik (initiators).  The ceremony includes prayers for the initiates, speeches from community leaders, singing, dancing, feasting and exchanging gifts.

Tumndo Ne Leel Support Group reaches out to other members of the community.  Young men are encouraged to marry uncircumcised women.  Ex-circumcisors are taught a new livelihood.  Local churches and Moi University are partners with Tumndo Ne Leel Support Group, which is recognized by the Kenyan government's Ministry of Gender, Culture, and Sports.

Demand for the program is extremely high, overwhelming the limited resources of Tumndo Ne Leel Support Group.  Those interested in helping can contact Chebet at
Immediate needs include a pit latrine and a water tank (the center relies on harvesting rain water in a drought-plagued region).  Long term needs include money for beds and mattresses, construction of a dorm and money to purchase a four-wheel drive truck, as roads to the center are poor.