Girls in patched black and red overalls dance down a narrow lane in the light of dawn. They sing. They worship. They praise. They’re entering their adult lives through a new ceremony designed to buck a tradition that has injured so many of their ancestors.
The Maasai of Esiteti in southern Kenya, who have for centuries practiced Female Genital Mutilation as a traditional rite of passage as girls become women, are now giving up the long practiced tradition, which locals call “the cut.”
The procedure, also called female genital cutting (FGC) or female circumcision, involves the removal of the labia, clitoris or other parts of genitalia of girls and young women, often by untrained surgeons in unhygienic conditions. It’s common practice in many countries in north and central Africa, and also appears in parts of the Middle East.
But one chief here in southern Kenya is trying to change the perspective of his community when it comes to the female genital cutting.
Emily Nenkai, 10, and other girls are now going through an alternative ceremony meant to bring them into womanhood without physical harm.
“We real enjoy the new ceremony because it doesn’t interfere with our health and education,” Nenkai said. “It’s not brutal like the cut.”
Now, the girls, usually between the ages of 9 and 12 are given beads and clothes as a sign of rite of passage to womanhood.
Emily says she was given traditional beads on her clothes and a ring made from animal skin as a symbol of completing the ceremony and attending a two week class about the role of women in the community.
The girls spend a day and a night at the camp where the class is held, dancing and singing traditional songs.
During the ceremony, bulls, ox and goats are slaughtered by members of the ultra-traditional Maasai tribe to mark the ceremony. The girls are then advised to drink raw blood of the animal to signify adulthood and unity of the community.
“Some of the blood is sprinkled on their forehead to identify those who have undergone the rite,” said James Kamete, the local chief who disapproves of FGM.
He adds, “Girls are secluded for two weeks to be taught their roles as women of the society. We also encourage them to continue with their studies and get married at the right time.”
Kamete said that members of the community are invited to come to the ceremony and celebrate with girls who have undergone an alternative rite of passage.
The chief said that girls are not supposed to sleep during the first night, so they encourage each other with extravagant displays and stories of their life.
Kenyan legislatures outlawed female genital mutilation partially in 2001 and then completely in 2011, reducing substantially the number of the procedures performed recently. A U.N. report found that in 1998, 38 percent of Kenyan women aged 15-49 has experienced FGM. By 2008 that number had dropped to 26 per cent partly due to awareness campaigns and alternative ceremonies.
But traditional surgeons elsewhere in Kenya have been dismissing the idea of alternative ceremony other than ‘the cut’ for girls as a rite of passage.
“I still can’t respect women who have not undergone the cut like me,” said Jackline Naeku, a Maasai woman from a nearby village. “They cannot take care of their homes and husbands.”
The debate may seem a world away, but Beth Farmer, a counselor at Lutheran Community Services who works with refugees and asylum seekers in Seattle will tell you differently.
Farmer says Kenyans like Naeku are ignoring the reality – that in fact there’s no moral basis for female genital cutting.
She added that in most cases she has come in contact with, the procedure was done with non-sterile instruments and outside any medical setting.
Farmer says there are often deep feelings of betrayal, confusion, and loss among the victims of FGM who now live in the Northwest.
“Many times the victims are taken against their will,” she said in an email. “They are forcibly held down and then the circumcision is performed.”
Back in Kenya, Chief Kamete is ready to take extreme measures to help girls who may be forced into undergoing the procedure against their will.
In November he helped Everlyne Tanei, 10, flee after she realized her parents planned to cut her.
Tanei was later taken to Tasaru Girls Rescue Center, which is 250 miles from the village, where she is continuing with her studies.
Kamete says he is opposed to FGM not only because it’s cruel but also because it spreads diseases like HIV/AIDS, causes infections and complicates birth.
Kamete said over 1000 Maasai girls have gone through the alternative ceremony, thus improving their chances of getting an education and avoiding being married off at a young age.
“I will still continue holding rallies at the grassroots level to end the illegal practice that was killing girls in our village,” he said.
For Emily Nenkai, who now sits in the final gathering to listen to their chief before they return to their homes and new responsibilities, says life will not be the same again.
“I’m very excited about this important time in my life,” she said. “I will now access education without fear.”