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Saying 'No' to 'The Cut' in Kenya

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By Debbie DeVoe

They call it "the cut."

Some girls are told their little fingers will be cut off but are assured they will grow back by the end of the three-week seclusion. Others are told they will grow a long tail between their legs if they don't get cut. Still more girls simply understand that whatever the cut is, it's a necessary part of becoming a woman and being ready for marriage. Not one fully understands that she will undergo an extremely painful circumcision.

"Female circumcision is a traditional practice that dates back hundreds of years in many African countries," explains Elizabeth Mwangi, justice and peacebuilding officer for Catholic Relief Services in Kenya. "Some Kenyan communities are now recognizing the human rights and health issues involved and are taking measures to end the practice. At the same time, they want to retain the important rite of passage and cultural education that are also part of the ritual."

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More than 150 adolescent girls celebrate the end of their seclusion in Kangeta parish, marking their healthy shift to adulthood at a graduation ceremony. Photo by CRS staff

An Age-Old Cultural Tradition

For most Americans, the concept of female circumcision is almost unimaginable. How could parents--and particularly mothers--have their little girls undergo such a procedure? What could possibly be the benefit?

In many other countries, however, female circumcision is as common and accepted as male circumcision. Each December in Kenya, girls of marrying age (which averages between 9 and 12 years old) are taken by an older female community member--sometimes by force--to a secluded location to mark the shift from childhood to adulthood.

The older women teach the girls traditional lore and important skills, including how to be a good wife and care for children. During the seclusion, the girls are also circumcised, often under unsanitary conditions. The practice takes different forms based on the cultural practices of a given ethnic group, and often leads to years of pain, which can be exacerbated by infections and childbirth.

Some say that female circumcision encouraged fidelity when men left home for long periods to hunt for food or graze livestock. But as governments ban the practice and people become more educated about the risks involved--including possible HIV infection from contaminated cutting instruments and even death from excessive bleeding--communities are starting to question the rite's continued value in a changing world.

"In the past, it was geared for preparing girls to enter marriage," says Margaret Kanyaru, who has a 14-year-old daughter. "During that time, girls were not expected to go to school. Now HIV is also a danger." Girls typically drop out of school after being circumcised, deciding they are all grown up and need to focus on getting married--a mind-set Margaret and many other parents want to keep their daughters from adopting.

Changing Hearts and Minds

In 2002, the Catholic Diocese of Meru in central Kenya committed to increasing awareness of women's and children's rights. Concerned about growing incidences of domestic violence and girls dying during circumcision procedures, the bishop asked Catholic Relief Services to help develop an alternative rite of passage.

"When we started the project, we would call community members into a meeting. As soon as we started talking about female circumcision, people would get up and walk out," explains Martin Koome, the diocese's project coordinator for the alternative rite of passage. "But we persevered. Now we're at the point that when we say we're having an [alternative] seclusion, we have to limit the number of girls who can participate."

But changing hundreds of years of cultural practice is extremely difficult and doesn't happen overnight. Previous initiatives implemented by other organizations had already failed.
CRS and the Diocese of Meru recognized that lasting success would require full community buy-in, which would take years to achieve. Together, they set out to engage every community circle in determining if an alternative to circumcision was a worthwhile endeavor and, if so, what an ideal alternative rite of passage would offer.

Over the next four years, girls, parents, elders, government officials, religious leaders of all faiths, teachers, boys, men of marrying age, and even traditional circumcisers who had an economic stake in the practice shared their thoughts about female circumcision and what was necessary for an alternative rite to succeed.

Community Acceptance

CRS and the Diocese of Meru took in all this feedback and then worked with community members for two additional years to develop a weeklong curriculum for an alternative rite of passage. Interested girls can now sign up in participating parishes to attend an alternative seclusion at a school, community center or church building, typically held over the long Christmas or Easter school holidays. Girls of all faiths are encouraged to attend, and the alternative seclusions are now strongly supported by religious leaders, government officials and Meru's Council of Elders. An older female mentor accompanies each girl, just as she would in the traditional rite.

The project has become so successful that parishes often have to turn away interested participants. At one seclusion in Kangeta parish, more than 500 girls applied for the 150 spaces available.
During the alternative seclusion, volunteer teachers, nurses, doctors and social workers discuss with the adolescent participants a wide range of issues, including cultural lessons, health issues, relationship skills and the dangers of circumcision. Often, these discussions provide the girls with their first understanding of what they would have undergone during the traditional rite of passage. The workshops also focus on building the girls' self-esteem, teaching them to discuss sensitive issues comfortably and say a firm "no" to actions with which they disagree.

"We had some friends who were circumcised. They would tell us myths: You'll never get married, you'll smell, things like that," shares 16-year-old Caroline Kanana. "Then we came here and got that knowledge [of circumcision]. If it weren't for this project, we might go join them and accept whatever they did to us."

"Our grandmothers say we must feel the pain they felt to honor our culture," Caroline adds. "We need to have the courage to say there is no need to be circumcised."

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One of the many graduates of the alternative rite of passage in Kenya, Caroline Kanana now has the knowledge and courage to say no to circumcision. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

Support from their mentors, parents and older sisters who themselves may have already been circumcised bolsters the graduates' resolve to remain uncircumcised.

The project has become so successful that parishes often have to turn away interested participants. At one seclusion in Kangeta parish, more than 500 girls applied for the 150 spaces available.

Men in the surrounding area are also changing their attitudes. When the project started, it was difficult to find any man willing to marry an uncircumcised girl. Due to increased awareness of the risks involved in circumcision and its impact on sexual intimacy, many will now only consider marrying a girl who has not been cut.

This shift, while extremely positive, makes it critical for communities to ensure that already circumcised girls are not stigmatized or shunned in return. The desire to respect past practices and women who have been circumcised is also why the project uses the term "female circumcision" instead of "female genital mutilation."

More Time Needed for Lasting Change

By September 2008, at the end of the second phase of the project, 641 girls had graduated from five alternative rites of passage in five parishes. CRS and the Diocese of Meru are now aiming to offer an alternative rite of passage to an additional 1,200 girls of all faiths across 30 parishes in the region over the next three years.

Parishes continue to report higher demand than can often be accommodated. During the Easter school break in April 2009, two parishes stretched their capacities to enable 334 girls to attend the alternative seclusions instead of the planned 300 participants. Additional funding would allow parishes to sponsor multiple seclusions simultaneously to serve all interested girls and families.

Eventually, the diocese hopes that community support will grow to the point that community members are willing to pay a small fee for their daughters to participate in the alternative rite, just as they now pay traditional circumcisers, which could make the project self-sustaining. For now though, as the diocese slowly shifts deeply held cultural beliefs, additional private funding is required for the initiative to expand and continue.

The risk of circumcision doesn't disappear after girls complete the alternative rite of passage. Family pressure, peer pressure and even pressure from a suitor can lead a graduate to change her mind. Uncircumcised adolescent girls are also at risk of being kidnapped and cut by relatives who disagree with the decision. In addition, uncircumcised women of any age are sometimes cut during childbirth, with mothers-in-law or other relatives convincing medical personnel to do the procedure without the patient's consent. These human rights abuses underscore the importance of the life skills, personal growth and increased self-esteem the girls gain during the alternative seclusions.

Winfred Muthoni, 12 years old, is attending the second-to-last day of her alternative seclusion. She sits quietly on a wooden chair with her hands in her lap, her small, slightly hunched frame swallowed by a tan fleece jacket decorated with galloping horses. I ask her what she'll do if she is later pressured to be circumcised. Her light-brown eyes turn steely, and she juts her chin forward. Then she answers simply but with palpable determination: "I'd just refuse."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer in East Africa based in Nairobi. She visited a seclusion for 158 girls in Kangeta parish in central Kenya.