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.

"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."

Some of the strategies he identifies that could end FGM in the Masai community: reconciling rescued girls with their families once their safety is ensured; teaching people that the coming-of-age ritual can be performed without the circumcision procedure; and persuading young men not to insist on marrying only someone who has been circumcised.

International rights groups such as Amnesty International are also starting to work more closely with activists from within traditional communities. Amnesty has followed the advice of local partners and avoided pressing for national legislation outlawing female circumcision, says Adotei Akwei, a director with Amnesty's Stop Violence Against Women campaign, in a phone interview. "You don't want to drive it underground, lose control completely, and increase the risk," he says.

The Masai are seminomadic pastoralists, most of whom live in southern Kenya. With restrictions placed on their traditional cattle-grazing lands, Masai who do not choose to move to the city now make a living with small-scale farming and by selling crafts to tourists.

When Olekina met Kaelo in 2003, she had already been circumcised and threatened twice with early marriage because her parents could no longer afford to feed their family - they had no cows left to trade, and the forest that once surrounded their home had been slowly obliterated as they cut it down for fuel.

Olekina visited Kaelo's school in search of bright Masai girls to sponsor. A teacher told him that Kaelo had too much potential to be wasted in an early marriage and needed to be allowed to continue her education. Kaelo's parents were eager for the opportunity to keep her in school. With funding from the US Agency for International Development's Africa Education Initiative, MED paid for Kaelo to finish high school and sit for her final exams, which she aced. Also graduating that year were Kisai, Nkadori, and more than 100 other Masai women who received aid from MED and USAID.

The Big Three spent one year at MED's computer training school in 2004 and finished the program at the top of their class. Three months into their pre-medicine programs at Chicago State, the women were already talking about plans to return to Kenya as doctors and open a hospital for rural Masai communities.

They say most early marriages occur today out of economic necessity. When parents can no longer pay for school fees, they see early marriage as the only way to keep their daughters from ending up on the streets. Few Masai men will marry uncircumcised women.

But the genuine concern that Masai families have for their daughters may play a key role in ending FGM, they say, if the dangers of the practice are communicated.

While international anti-FGM campaigns have pressed for laws that have resulted in the arrest of rural Masai parents, the women say, discussions about its dangers and the policy issues surrounding it rarely reach the isolated communities where the practice is most common.

"I am certain that when these girls go back, they will have a great impact on their community," says Sarah Moten, chief of the education division of the USAID Africa Bureau, in a phone interview. "It will be a female who will stop FGM."

The Big Three insist that that female must also be Masai.

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