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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.

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Some tribal groups abstain from the practice, but others such as the Kisii and the Masai are enthusiastic about the practice, at 97 percent and 89 percent respectively.

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"The Masai parents have been very resistant to change," says Florence Gachanja, country representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Nairobi, which funds programs to promote better maternal health practices. "It's a deeply rooted culture."

The solution, says Ms. Gachanja, is to "come up with something that is accepted by the community, to use culturally accepted practices, involve the elders and maybe the religious leaders. And then if you can use a role model ... who has not undergone circumcision, then people can say, 'Wow, she's normal!' "

Masai herdsman Ole Nkaiyaka – a 70-something elder taking an early morning stroll through Narok with a red blanket wrapped around his shoulders – says his three wives were circumcised. But after he converted to Catholicism, he decided not to circumcise any of his 40 children – boys or girls.

"It used to be a must during the old days, but now I think it's not good," he says. "That was the tradition of our forefathers, but ... today, because people are in school, they can have much more information and they will leave this thing behind."

Agnes Paraiyo, founder of the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center, says that education and religious instruction are slowly reducing incidents of circumcision. Her workers go to villages and "show them that if they don't marry off the girl, she can get an education, and a job, and can still help the family," says Ms. Paraiyo, who also talks with Masai communities and their leaders.

"I bring these girls together, and bring the elders, and tell them, 'Our culture is good, but some parts of it are harmful to us.' I don't say do away with the culture, I say do away with a small part of it [circumcision]."

Still, some families cannot be reconciled with their uncircumcised daughters at Tasaru. Sila, one of some 20 girls at the shelter, is one of them. After running away in 2004 at age 14 to avoid an early marriage to a 40-year-old man, she doesn't think she can reconcile with her family, but she's grateful she came and finished her high-school education.

Though already circumcised, she received an alternative initiation in which older Masai women and teachers taught her about her rights as a girl, about proper health and hygiene, and about womanhood.

Now, she wants to carry that knowledge back to her home village. "I want to go to my home area and teach them what I have learned."