A woman's approach to ending a perilous rite of passage
Eunice Sitatian Kaelo was proud to be circumcised when she was 15. Despite the pain of the procedure, she says she respected the ceremony that brought her Masai community together to celebrate her passage to adulthood. Three years later, Ms. Kaelo has learned about the dangers of female circumcision - which, even among Masai, is now commonly called female genital mutilation, or FGM - but she still sees her status as a circumcised woman as beneficial.Skip to next paragraph
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"I am glad that FGM was performed on me, because now I can talk from experience when I campaign against it," she says.
Because Kaelo understands the significance of female circumcision as part of a rite of passage in Masai culture, she feels she can better explain to her family, neighbors, and friends why the practice should end. The international anti-FGM movement is ineffective - and sometimes drives the practice underground, further endangering girls - because of a lack of understanding of and respect for Masai culture, she says.
In January, Kaelo and two other Masai women - Agnes Kainett Kisai and Evelyn Nashipae Nkadori - started college at Chicago State University in the United States. Known back home as "The Big Three," they intend to become doctors and then work from within their culture to stop FGM.
"It's a hard task," Ms. Kisai says. "You can only do it when you have a degree to show."
But even a medical degree will be ineffective, the young women say, if they can't assure Masai fathers that ending female circumcision won't destroy their culture.
"People fighting against FGM now are not Masai," Kisai says. "They don't know how it's done, and then they write bad things about it. I know what it is from my sister, my cousin, my people."
Representatives of nations throughout Africa and Asia gathered in September at the Nairobi International Conference on Female Genital Mutilation and urged national governments to pass laws to eliminate the tradition. But forceful measures against FGM have made the procedure more dangerous for Masai girls, says Ledama Olekina, founder of Maasai Education Discovery (MED), an organization in Narok, Kenya, that rescues girls who are threatened with circumcision against their wishes and helps them finish school.
Often, when parents fear that the government or some other outside organization knows of their plans to circumcise their daughters, they perform a secret ceremony deep in the forest, Mr. Olekina says. He knows of girls as young as 10 who were circumcised and married before officials had time to become suspicious.
Traditionally, the Masai ritual was not performed until a girl was at least 12. Infection rateshave increased dramatically, Olekina says, because tools used in the clandestine surgeries are usually not sterilized.
"A lot of people quote the United Nations' [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]; they quote laws that have been set up by the government," Olekina says. "That doesn't really help. A lot of Masai don't understand what the law is to begin with.... My goal is to create women leaders who will come back and help our culture, which is old and traditional, be able to adapt to the Western ideas [with] a more welcoming approach, rather than the forceful approach which has been used."