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- Published on Saturday, 07 July 2007 08:12
Female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) is one such practice which a number of communities still hold dear. The practice is done globally and in at least 26 African countries, ranging from a prevalence of five per cent in Zaire to 98 per cent in Somalia. In Kenya an estimate shows that 49 out of the 64 districts practice FGM. Studies further show that FGM is widely practised in Kenya by, among others, Somalis, Borans, Kalenjins, Samburu, Kisiis, Kambas, Maasais and the Meru.
The practice, mainly done as a form of rite of passage from childhood to womanhood has been a subject of debate for several decades.
On the one hand there are medical personnel, gender and human rights activists trying to stop it because the practice is believed to be outdated, inhuman, harmful and a violation of human rights.
While on the other hand are customary diehards who believe FGM retains the community identity and symbolically endorses the growth of young girls into womanhood. This ties with the objective of cutting girls' genitalia as a way of curtailing their sex urge to control their sexual activity.
In communities like the Maasai, circumcision coincided with puberty or just before. It was done to endorse girls' maturity into womanhood and in essence marriage.
Among the Kisii, girls were (and still are) circumcised between age five and eight years old. The Samburu, on the other hand circumcised girls the day before their marriage. School stops after this and decisions about marriage or what happens to them is the parents' concern.
To top it all, ceremonies were held and involved the whole community in which people ate, drunk and made merry.
Among the Meru, for instance, the initiates were accompanied by many women to the river early morning singing and dancing before the actual operation. This would be followed by celebrations.
But why is this practice so difficult to eliminate even when so much has been said about its harmfulness?
Does it achieve the traditional objective any more when many girls now are going to formal schools and are being exposed to Western education other than what the society provided in the past?
One of the arguments put forward by those who want the practice to continue is that the communities would lose important celebrations that endorse their identity and value. They also wonder what would replace such significant ceremonies.
They don't see the reasoning behind death of the initiates due to haemorrhage and explain it as a curse, when it occurs.
"It is a real concern that a ceremony that has meant so much for the whole community is now being done away with. What will the community fill all that time with?" some ask.
What will replace all the community fun and celebration?
Studies done to evaluate the magnitude, value of the practice and the possible replacement show that some of the communities' insistence on the practice is because circumcision as an initiation was at the heart of socialisation. So much so that among the Samburu, formal school ceases once this ritual is done.
But while population, medical, gender and human rights activists advocate for the eradication of FGM, a new initiative which responds to both concerns of those opposed to it on one hand and those who want it, is increasingly taking root in Kenya.
The initiative, which was identified as a best practice in last month's Regional Unifem conference in Nairobi involves various stages of the ritual but, with one significant omission - the cut.
The initiative, dabbed as alternative circumcision has so far been tried out successfully in Tharaka Nithi (where it started), Nyamira and Narok. The initiative which started in 1996 has since benefitted 1,124 girls in the three areas.
But for it to have come this far, the communities had to be actively involved and come up with their own suggestions to make it acceptable.
This followed a study in 1991/ 92 by Maendeleo ya Wanawake organisation and Path which was to determine the magnitude of the practice and the factors that perpetuate it. The areas included Meru, Narok, Kisii and Samburu, now spread out in eight districts in total.
The results were then discussed and debated by the communities, many of whom had been involved in the collection of data of the research. Leaders, social workers and medical personnel were also involved in the discussions, which then started seeking ways of finding an alternative to the cut.
It was during this period that groups of women in Tharaka Nithi came up with the initial proposal of holding the circumcision ceremonies without a cut.
"These were women who were already convinced that their daughters should not be circumcised and who had also convinced their husbands about it," explains Leah Muuya, the Maendeleo ya Wanawake FGM/gender programme manager.
She says the discussions revolved around the significance of the cut and the ceremonies.
"There is a lot of eating and drinking this time and the girls are normally secluded and at the end given gifts as a sign of successful graduation into womanhood."
Eventually they resolved to include all the meaningful aspects of the ritual but leave the cut out.
The first lot of 28 girls graduated in 1996 after having been secluded and gone through counselling on matters of family life education, self-esteem and related matters.
"We also developed a district-specific approach after this because every community has its own reasons, time and activity," Muuya adds.
She says in Kisii, where girls are circumcised from age five to eight, the approach had to be specific for that age.
They targeted parents and medical people, since many girls are now being circumcised in clinics and hospitals.
In Meru and Narok, girls were also involved in the discussion and they said what they wanted to learn during the seclusion period, as well as get all the benefits associated with the ceremonies - the gifts, better nourishment, and other positive things that go with it.
"We have had positive results, and none of the initiates have requested for FGM," Samson Radeny,
He said the groups that introduced it are now being invited to help with the process in other areas.
Further, in some areas where the modern ritual has been done openly, the tradition has gone underground.
"It is easier for people to adjust when they have a practical way of replacing what they believed in," says Masheti Masinjila, a culture/ gender expert.