When Sirintai Sukuli learned of the fate of one of her relatives, she knew she didn’t want to end up like her. She was just a girl, but they took her away to undergo genital mutilation. She was in the fourth grade of primary school. Later she thought that she was already a woman, that she could marry and give birth. So she got pregnant, but because she was so young, she lost the baby. She had a very hard time because she was at home, she couldn’t go back to school and she was married to an older man,” she recalls.
Sukuli, 17, describes this drama that touched her closely by handling her long bead necklace, a sign of beauty in Maasai culture. For her, today also begins a new chapter in her life: she becomes a woman, but at the same time she is going to end a tradition that she has harmed and continues to harm millions of girls. The young woman has just finished a five-day tutorial that includes life skills, education and sexual and reproductive health and is part of the so-called Alternative Rite of Passage, a new initiative led by the community itself, which maintains traditional rituals, but completely leaves out female genital mutilation (FGM)
Although Kenya banned this practice in 2011, it continues to affect women and girls, violating their rights and posing a serious risk to their well-being. “Mutilation has been a challenge because it is closely linked to culture, and the Maasai community highly values their culture,” says Alex Salankat, project director of the NGO SAFE and Maasai activist against this practice. “We have been trying to end these ablations for more than 10 years, but the fight continues. Although we must recognize that it has decreased over the years thanks to the education that has been given to the people,” he adds.
In total, 140 girls graduated in this alternative rite of passage held at the Mararianda primary school, in Narok county (southwest Kenya), this August 19. The celebration, organized by the local NGO The Maa Trust, brought together community leaders, cultural and religious leaders, morans (young people considered warriors in the Maasai community), fathers and mothers and teachers. Dressed in traditional jewelry and vibrantly colored dresses, the girls danced and recited poems against genital mutilation and in favor of human rights. They paraded alongside adult women to symbolize their coming of age and were received by the elders of the community, custodians of the culture, to receive the blessing, with the promise that none of them will be subjected to excision. At the end of the ceremony they received a certificate, as a testimony that they had been freed from FGM.
I can study well without being mutilated. I now have the confidence to oppose this practice and will never submit to it
Stacy Sintoyia, young Masai
“I chose to be here because I want to be a pioneer in my family, the first who does not undergo genital mutilation. I feel happy and proud,” says Stacy Sintoyia, 15, one of the graduates. “It would only bring me problems. I can study well without being mutilated. I now have the confidence to oppose this practice and will never submit to it,” she explains.
Mothers, abandoned and poor
According to Unicef, some four million young people suffer FGM each year and some 200 million girls and women currently alive have been subjected to genital mutilation, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and some Arab countries, although it is also practiced in Asian states. Eastern Europe and Latin America. For 25 years, international organizations such as the World Health Organization, Unicef and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) have launched actions to eradicate female genital mutilation.
Recent survey data shows that Kenya is reducing the practice. In 2022, the prevalence rate was 15%, up from 32% in 2003. However, the fight against female genital mutilation is far from over.
It is very unfortunate. Now girls between six and 10 years old are threatened with excision
Alex Salankat, ONG SAFE
The tradition continues to have followers behind closed doors and girls are in many cases subjected to excision during their school holidays, when they have time to recover. Some are taken to neighboring countries. “We border Tanzania and the border is porous. You realize that they take the girls to the other side to perform the ablation and then return to their community,” explains Salankat.
Traditionally, genital cutting has been one of the most important ceremonies in the life of a young Maasai woman. The procedure is mainly carried out on children under 18 years of age, but recent data suggests that girls may be subjected to this practice at younger ages. “It is very unfortunate. Now they are already threatening girls between six and 10 years old with excision,” says Salankat.
When the girl undergoes this practice, it is culturally assumed that she is ready for marriage. Denied the opportunity to access education, young women are forced into a life of poverty as they lack opportunities to improve their economic situation. “Some girls end up being single mothers. Their husbands abandoned them, their children are very small, they have no food or diapers. There are husbands who only want to get them pregnant and then leave,” says Oprah Nempiris, 13, another of the girls who has overcome this alternative rite and has escaped ablation, while holding a shuka, a normally printed fabric, against her chest. in red used by the Maasai community in East Africa.
“Our community changes slowly. But over time, when the entire community accepts it, we will all move in the same direction and help the girls,” Salankat summarizes.
In this alternative ceremony, the girls who receive the blessing of their elders under the scorching sun of the Mararianda primary school are engines of change and will have the opportunity to choose a very different destiny than the one that was reserved for them. “I must serve as an example to my little brothers, strive to work hard and show them that a girl who has not suffered genital mutilation is capable of doing it. And to do it well,” says Sukuli.
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