August 22, 2016; Nairobi, Kenya – In a significant shift from tradition, Maasai elders in Loitoktok, in Kenya’s Kajiado County, blessed 363 girls who chose to forgo traditional Female Genital Mutilation (FGM, also known as Female Genital Cutting) as a rite of initiation into womanhood. Instead, the girls went through an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony where they graduated to womanhood within their cultural traditions but without having to undergo the harmful cut.
The colorful celebration, held in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, was a significant win against the harmful, illegal practice of FGM. In addition to Maasai community members, the event was attended by the Deputy Governor for Kajiado, Mr. Paul Ntiati, the chairperson of the National Anti-FGM Board, Linah Jebii Kilimo, Amref Health Africa Group Chief Executive Officer Dr. Githinji Gitahi and Amref Kenya Country Director Dr. Meshack Ndirangu.
Since 2009, Amref Health Africa has supported communities in Kajiado and Samburu counties in Kenya to hold Alternative Rite of Passage ceremonies that celebrate the transition to womanhood without FGM. Instead, the girls are able to stay in school, and avoid early marriage. So far, 10,500 girls have passed through the program.
The graduation ceremony was preceded by two days of lessons on Maasai values and traditions, sexuality and sexual health issues, and life skills. For the first time, the Alternative Rites of Passage graduates included boys (137 of in total) who were trained as ambassadors to help guard against the stigma girls who don’t undergo FGM may face.
In Kenya alone, 100,000 girls undergo FGM every year, and 21 per cent of girls and women (around 2.5 million) have already undergone the cut, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014. This is despite the documented risks of FGM such as fatalities resulting from excessive bleeding, psychological trauma, HIV resulting from sharing of unsterilized blades and complications in childbirth.
FGM not only causes serious health problems, but as soon as a girl is 'cut', she is considered a 'woman' and ready for marriage, no matter how young. She is also expected to leave school, which leads to fewer opportunities for girls.
The biggest challenge in ending FGM has always been the fact that it is culturally entrenched, and has the longstanding support of cultural leaders. Amref Health Africa has worked closely with influential groups like Maasai elders and morans (young men), enabling the Alternative Rites of Passage program to grow. The elders were a significant part of the recent graduation in Loitoktok, offering traditional signs of blessings, such as pouring cow’s milk, and encouraging them to continue with their education.
In addition to cultural elders and local leadership, Amref Health Africa has also been able to win the support of traditional birth attendants who often act as circumcisers.
The local leadership has also come out to support the Alternative Rites of Passage program and to take a firm stand against FGM. “The Laws of Kenya must be upheld. FGM must not be allowed, and we will see to it that anyone caught subjecting young girls to this practice is dealt with appropriately,” said area Chief Wilson Lekutuk.
“The Alternative Rites of Passage program allows girls to stay in school and contribute positively to the socio-economic growth of their communities and country,” said Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO, Amref Health Africa. He added that Amref Health Africa is committed to continuing the fight against FGM in African countries where it is still practiced.