In Kenya, a refuge from female circumcision
The Tasaru Girls Rescue Center offers girls an alternative rite of passage to the deep-rooted cultural practice, also known as FGM.
Five years ago, when Millicent was 13 years old, her father told her it was time to leave school and get married. But first, he said, the Masai adolescent must be circumcised.Skip to next paragraph
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Millicent had her own ideas; she had learned at a recent village workshop about the dangers of female circumcision and early marriage. But her family was unsympathetic. "I was circumcised, your mother was circumcised," her grandmother told Millicent. Fighting back tears, she explains, "In my community, it is difficult for a girl who is not circumcised to get married."
Today, after a cousin who helped her run away, Millicent lives at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center in Narok. There, she has continued her schooling and received an alternative rite of passage – part traditional rituals, part health class – which she hopes will allow her to be accepted by her community, if not her family, in the future.
"If I hadn't come here, I would be a mother of two or three children by now," says Millicent, now 18. "My community should understand, by not getting married early, I can get a better education, and a job to earn money for my family. For now," she looks out the door at the girls in the garden of the shelter, "this is my family."
Female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM) is persistent throughout the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, despite research showing it contributes to thousands of miscarriages and maternal deaths each year.
Changing an entire culture – particularly a very distinctive one, such as the Masai people's – can be a difficult process even in a fairly well-off and well-educated country like Kenya. The key ingredient, activists say, is the consent of the people who find meaning from that culture.
"Culture is dynamic, culture can adapt, but good, sustainable cultural change comes from within," says Ben Ole Koissaba, a liberal activist and chairman of the Masai Civil Society Forum in Narok. He says key tools in ending female circumcision are education and the creation of new institutions to fulfill the same cultural need – marking the passage from childhood to womanhood. And patience.
"You cannot do this by force," he says. "Changing people's attitudes is not like cut-and-paste on a computer. It takes time."
Although female circumcision has been banned at least twice in Kenya, in 1982 and 1989, the practice has been difficult to eliminate by mere laws. Many Kenyans believe the rite of passage has health benefits and also includes lessons about pregnancy and child-rearing, relations with husbands, and proper behavior within the clans.
In 1998, the Ministry of Health found in a health survey that 38 percent of Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 19, and more than half of women over the age of 35, had undergone the procedure.