Mairead visiting local women in Benditai, Kenya. Photo: Mairéad CullenThe East African nation of Kenya, like many other African countries, has a long history of performing female circumcision—also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—on girls as young as nine years old. Recent years, however, have seen efforts to eradicate female circumcision as a cultural practice not just in Kenya, but throughout the world. Despite these efforts, each year approximately three million girls face the prospect of female circumcision—the practice remains difficult to remove from local communities due to the traditional significance it has to people’s lives.

Kenyan law was changed in 2010 in order to make female circumcision illegal in the East African nation; penalties for people involved in the practice range from hefty fines to lengthy jail terms. While this is undoubtedly a positive step towards the eventual removal of FGM from Kenyan society as a whole, a recent radio documentary revealed that FGM continues to be practiced in secret in many communities. The producer of the documentary, Mairéad Cullen, discovered that the unofficial and concealed continuation of FGM is problematic because it increases the many risks—including infection, complications during childbirth, and bleeding to death—that are already associated with the practice of female circumcision.

Female circumcision in Kenya takes place primarily as a rite of passage for young girls—it changes their status in their communities from being young girls to young women who are eligible to be married.  This is problematic in two ways. First, it allows them to be married off by their families—often to a much older man—in exchange for a dowry. This perpetuates women’s status as inferior members of Kenyan society. Second, and more importantly, because girls are usually married soon after being circumcised, their opportunities to continue being educated cease after FGM takes place.  There is, however, also a problem when girls are not circumcised—their families often find themselves ostracised by their communities; there often exists a general belief in rural communities that uncircumcised girls are unable to cook, clean, and are unsure how to act as women—all these things are taught to girls in the days immediately following their circumcision. Friends of Londiani, the NGO Cullen focused her documentary on, seeks to change the perception in Kenyan communities that the actual cutting of girls is a necessary part of the traditional rite of passage for women. “Many groups have tried—and been unsuccessful—before,” says Cullen. “This alternative has been successful primarily due to the trust and respect built-up between the local women and Friends of Londiani.” The organisation set up a life-skills course that takes place as an alternative rite of passage for young Kenyan girls. The 3-5 day program educates girls in the same manner as the days following their circumcision—the only difference being no actual cutting takes place. “The change [in people’s perceptions] is demonstrated by the number of communities requesting the alternative rite course,” says Cullen. In 2009, the alternative rite took place in one community, with 50 girls graduating. Word about the program quickly spread around the region of Londiani; in 2011, 24 communities—each with 50 girls—took part in the initiative.

A village welcome in Kopkwet, Kenya. Photo: Mairéad CullenAlthough the Kenyan law banning FGM was introduced last year, figures show that FGM in Kenya had already decreased by over 15% from 2003-09. Still, it is important to acknowledge the sensitivity of the issue; “the alternative rite could be perceived as Western societies trying to change African traditions,” says Cullen. Friends of Londiani, however, seeks not to change African traditions, but to empower young Kenyan women through the sharing of information and knowledge. Ultimately, after becoming aware of the choices and options available to them, girls are encouraged to make their own decisions for themselves.                 

Kenyan attitudes towards FGM seem to be changing enough to consider that it may be completely eradicated in the foreseeable future. In Kenya, female circumcision is gradually being seen less as an intrinsic part of growing up, and more as an unnecessary practice. Looking to the future, it may be hoped that the change in Kenyan societal attitudes towards FGM has the potential to spill over to other African nations—including neighbouring nations Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Somalia—where female circumcision is still widely practiced

SEAN KEARNS

Mairéad Cullen’s documentary, ‘New Beginnings,’ on female circumcision and the alternative rite of passage is available here.