Maasai - Feature Articles


From the Nation newspaper, 7 May 1995 ( The abstract reads: Female circumcision is seen by many to be a rite of passage necessary for a young woman to find her rightful place in society. However, the health risks both physical and psychological are immense. The practice in Africa may be slowly dying out, but it will continue for years to come. See the copyright notice for textual extracts.

A Dangerous Rite of Passage, by Stephanie Welsh

Penina, a 13-year-old Maasai girl, sits on a sheepskin laid at the door of her mother's hut. Her legs are held open by her aunts while an elderly circumciser makes rapid cuts to her genitals. Without any anesthesia and forbidden to cry out or show fear, the girl bites on a cloth during the 10-minute operation until the circumciser is through.

Toward the end of the operation, Penina passes out from pain and blood loss. The wound is cleansed with cow urine and smothered in goat fat to stop the bleeding, and the girl is put in bed until she regains consciousness. Her proud husband-to-be, waiting outside, is congratulated by elders. Many relatives and friends have come, bringing gifts of goats and money for Penina's father.

The next initiate, Penina's 11 year-old sister Enkarsis, is not so brave. As the circumciser makes the first cut to the clitoris, the child howls in pain: "Why are you killing me? Leave me alone. Why do you want to kill me?" The circumciser cackles with laughter. "Mom, why can't you save me?" pleads Enkarsis.

Her mother reprimands her sternly, "Keep quiet! You should be able to withstand this thing. You are not a coward."

When asked why she laughed throughout the operation, the circumciser answered, "The pain doesn't kill. We laugh because it is our culture, and we have all passed through this stage .... She is so beautiful because she is a clean woman now. She is a grown-up."

Despite repeated denunciations of female genital mutilation by humanitarian and women's organizations and even a presidential ban on the practice, mutilations continue. Many ask why. The answer is deeply rooted in tradition, and the stark brutality of the act is readily justified through culture.

"Circumcision is meant to reduce a woman's sexual desire so that she won't go looking for extramarital affairs," says women's health advocate Lois Towon. Ironically, the result may be the reverse. The headmistress of a girls' boarding school in Kajiado, Priscilla Nangurai, says the school loses 10 to 20 young girls a year who become pregnant after being circumcised.
   "A girl is free to have sex with any man after she is circumcised, and men take advantage of that," says Nangurai. "It is not in our culture to refuse a man."

Unlike Somali and other Muslim cultures that circumcise to preserve virginity around the age of seven, the Maasai circumcise girls at puberty as an important initiation into the tribe.

Circumcision is considered the most significant rite of passage to adulthood. It is said to enhance tribal and social cohesion, increase a girl's marriage opportunities, and increase a father's status within the community. "Parents are not out to hurt their daughters," says Charity Mailutha, program officer for the Family Planning Association of Kenya. "But to prepare them for marriage, to prepare them to be women who can be accepted in society; circumcision is the only way they know. It is a passage from childhood to adulthood."

But how far must a woman go to feel that she belongs to her society and culture? According to World Health Organization estimates, at least 100 million women in 26 countries in Africa have had to pay a high price for their identity. And even in its mildest forms, female genital mutilation poses serious health risks.

"Female circumcision is the most sensitive part of the body, [and] the wound left behind is both physical and psychological," says Mailutha. The type of genital mutilation most common among the Maasai and Samburu tribes is excision, where the clitoris and the adjacent parts of the labia minora are removed. Many Samburus also practice infibulation, which involves sewing together the two sides of the vulva. The girl is required to hold her legs together for up to a month, allowing scar tissues to grow together and leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual flow.

Besides blood loss, which can be fatal, genital mutilation can have severe long-term side effects including urinary tract infections, chronic vaginal infections, excessive growth of scar tissue, and stones in the urethra and bladder caused by the obstruction of menstrual flow. The mutilation often leads to reproductive tract infections and infertility.

By far the most critical complications arising from genital mutilation come during pregnancy. Prolonged labor, which is life-threatening to both mother and child, is a common result.

Most people say that the practice of female genital mutilation is dying out, especially in Nairobi and other urban centers. But there is little hope of eradication in the near future. "We have more important things to worry about," such as the poor and unemployed, says Minister William ole Ntimama, one of the most influential Maasai leaders.

"What can be more important than the health of thousands of women in Kenya?" asks women's health activist Leah Muuya. About 70 percent of the food produced in Africa is the work of women. Women also carry the burden of raising children and running the household. "Without women, African society would fall apart," she adds.

In 1982, President Daniel arap Moi officially banned female genital mutilation, but 13 years later, the ban seems to have had little effect. Some circumcisers were arrested, Mailutha says, "but when they went to court, the cases were thrown out because there is no law that makes circumcision illegal."


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