Statistics have shown that fifty per cent of Kenyan women have undergone circumcision. In some areas this percentage is as high as 95 per cent and, as much as 50% of the women were operated on when they were aged between 10 and 15 years old.
A majority of Kenyans have turned their backs on it. A church-run center to rescue girls from circumcision have been opened in the town of Narok, to the west of the capital Nairobi. But some communities are not ready to abandon it yet, believing it is still a cultural practice.
The small church house shelters about a dozen Maasai girls escaping female circumcision and early marriage, age-old customs of the Kenyan tribe now frayed by health risks and new laws, while Maasai elders strongly defend their culture.
However, the running of the Hope for the Maasai Girls center set up in 2007 has not been smooth, as angry men have often threatened its founders and some parents disowned their daughters after they went there.
The founder of the rescue center, Pastor Jacob Momposhi Samperu, said, “They see you as someone who is opposing their original culture, their original nature.”
In communities where the practice persists, bride price is deeply entrenched and a girl who refuses to be circumcised is a threat to the would-be wealth her father expects on her marriage. There are cases where girls have been ostracized by their parents for refusing to be circumcised.
Martin Ololoigero, one of the managers of the rescue center explained, “Marrying an uncircumcised girl degrades your value as a man. There are some rituals the girl cannot participate in if she is not circumcised.”
During school holidays, Maasai girls as young as nine undergo the dangerous mutilation meant to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, which automatically means they can be married off, usually to older men.
The circumcision makes them feel grown up, and they have no qualms having sexual relations with adult men, and grown men also view them as mature women, ready for sexual relationships. In areas where girls are circumcised there are higher rates of teenage pregnancy and school drop outs. Teachers report that there is a noticeable drop in school performance soon after circumcision.
Two teenage girls at the rescue center recounted how they escaped the ritual and subsequent child marriage.
“My parents died and my guardians wanted to marry me off. That’s when I fled and came to this center,” said 15-year-old Mary Seela. “Girls who are circumcised and married off lead a difficult life because some have to do menial jobs to get a small income,” she said.
The second girl, Sarah Setoon, also 15, confirmed it.
“When girls are circumcised they have a lot of difficulties during childbirth. That’s why I refused to get circumcised,” she said.
“They are married off to old men, and sometimes these old men may die and leave the girl facing so many problems, and she has to do odd jobs just to survive.”
Circumcision, also called Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, involves using blades – often unsterilized and without anesthesia – to slice off the clitoris and sometimes other parts of the external genitalia.
Resulting medical complications or even death due to haemorrhage have stoked repugnance among many non-governmental groups and the government, leading to condemnation and even outlawing the practice.
Kenyan MPs have passed legislation banning FGM, with offenders punished by a seven-year jail term or a $5,000 fine, and life imprisonment if the circumcision results in death.
Kenya’s first lady Lucy Kibaki called for strict enforcement of the new law.
“These punitive penalties are deterrent enough if effectively enforced,” she said early in September.
“FGM is partly responsible for the high maternal and infant mortality rates, which are very common among communities where FGM is widely practiced,” Kibaki said.
But female circumcision is still widespread among the Maasai and the harmful tradition still has strong supporters.
FPAK feels that girls should be targeted with information about the practice, and given the confidence to say “no”. An uncircumcised girl is likely to be taunted by her family, friends, school mates and young boys. But when armed with information and some formal education she can withstand the pressure as statistics show.