by Nash Mepukori (Trinity senior)

6th July 2015

Samburu is a vast district located 412 kilometres from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The expanse is an isolated semi-desert environment that the government and many NGOs term as a hardship region, with nomadic communities in this region being classified as marginalized. Due to years of geographical and resource isolation, the Samburu have strongly held on to their traditions and culture. Among such traditions is Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Studies have shown that while FGC prevalence in Kenya as a whole is approximately 38%, this figure rises up to 89% among the Samburu.

Wamba, Samburu East

Wamba, Samburu East

FGC is one of the most important events in a young Samburu girl’s life. This rite of passage form girlhood to womanhood, typically performed when girls are between 10 and 15 years, is a flamboyant 4-day celebration. It is a moment where the entire community gets together to celebrate the coming of age of its young girls, and usually involves colourful ceremonies accompanied by song and dance. The girls are dressed up in their finest clothes, wear beautiful jewellery, and are blessed by tribal elders with milk and water. During this period, girls would undergo the cutting procedure, and then would be secluded to recuperate. While they were healing, they would be taught the secrets of the community—what it meant to be a Samburu woman, aspects of physical, mental, and sexual health. It is for this reason that uncut women, even those older than 18 years old are still considered children, since they are seen to be mentally and physically unknowledgeable.

However, the cutting of female girls has numerous short and long-term consequences. Short-term consequences include severe pain, shock, urinary retention, and in some cases death. Even after “healing”, the procedure has lasting long-term consequences including scarring and keloid formation, recurrent urinary tract infections, cyst formation, pain during sexual intercourse due to thick scar tissue, tearing and haemorrhage during childbirth, and psychological trauma (flashbacks, anxiety, depression, PTSD). It is for this reason that AMREF Health Africa has been battling the cutting of girls in Kenya for close to ten years now.

The African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) is an independent non-profit, non-governmental health organization whose vision is to create lasting health change in Africa. Founded in 1957, AMREF aims to build capacity, as well as bridge the gap between vulnerable communities and the rest of the health system. Concerned with the impact of FGC on the health and wellbeing of nomadic girls, AMREF engineered an anti-FGC intervention program, the Alternative Rite of Passage model (ARP). The ARP model takes into consideration the importance of the initiation ceremonies that accompany the cut, and thus trains communities that girls can become women without the cut. Since 2007, there have been coordinated efforts between the NGO and community members, including elders to put an end to the cut while maintaining other nourishing aspects of the rite. Between 2009 and 2014, AMREF has graduated 7,361 girls into womanhood through the Alternative Rite of Passage.

As a research intern at AMREF, my aim is to evaluate the ARP model. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which the ARP model is leading to changes in mind-set at the community level. Battling such an ingrained cultural practice has been an uphill climb from the onset. FGC presents a uniquely complex challenge because abandonment cannot occur individual family to individual family. Whole communities will have to decide to abandon the practice at a go if it is to be abandoned at all. This is because what one family decides to do depends on what other families will do. In a system where the community intra-marries, and where FGC is directly linked to marriageability, one family cannot afford to give up the practice unless other families also do the same, otherwise its girls risk missing out on marriage and the status that cutting one’s girls allows.

Furthermore, the big irony of this tradition is that the decision-makers in the community, male elders, have little to no knowledge of what FGC entails. These leaders give the go-ahead for girls to be cut but on the D-day, it is forbidden for men to be anywhere near the circumcision hut. Incidentally, in this community, the cut is always performed by a female traditional circumciser. Consequently, males are mostly ignorant of the magnitude of harm that cutting inflicts on girls. Any intervention that hopes to succeed needs therefore to include elders in the discussion since these are the custodians of culture. This is not to say that involving elders is a simple affair. Elders tend to be the most hostile in defending their cultural traditions when it comes to FGC. For this reason, anti-FGC interventions need not seek to judge, threaten, nor shock the community. Terms such as “mutilation”, “primitive”, “backward”, “barbaric” only offend the community who believe that the cut is an act of love, meant to protect its girls from shame. The language of human rights, thus, while a powerful legal tool against FGC, could be meaningless in a community in which FGC is not understood as a “violation of women’s rights”, nor as “torture”. However, with constructive, two-way, culturally competent dialogue, it is possible for this community to abandon the cut within a generation.



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