Meru - Feature Articles

Circumcision through Words

This page contains four articles about a ground-breaking alternative to clitoridectomy as initiation among Meru women, which was introduced in the 1990s. Maendeleo ya Wanawake is a Kenyan women's movement which has been working since 1990 to eradicate female genital mutilation. They are criticised by some for their close relationship with the ruling KANU government. PATH is an international non-profit organization whose stated mission is to improve the health of women and children. See the copyright notice for textual extracts.
In this page:
Alternative rituals raise hope...
Alternative Rite to Female Circumcision...
Ending the Nightmare Passage to Womanhood
Meru elders reject female cut

Circumcision through Words

Graduates of Circumcision Through Words

Circumcision through Words - Ntaniro na Mugambo
Image copyright PATH

Alternative rituals raise hope for eradication of female genital mutilation

PATH press release, 20 October 1997

Young African women facing ritual female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) now have an alternative, due to pioneering work by grassroots African organizations and PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) a Seattle nonprofit.

The new direction is partly a result of meetings among Kenyan mothers two years ago, seeking alternative ways to usher their daughters into womanhood. The mothers hoped to save them from the painful and dangerous mutilating operations widely performed on the external genitalia of young African women as a rite of passage.

The local group calls itself "Ntanira na Mugambo" which loosely translates as "circumcision through words." With support from their local community the women have devised a new approach to initiation into womanhood that includes song, education, celebration, and a week of seclusion.

The new "circumcision through words" ceremony was first performed in early 1996 for a small group, followed later that year by a larger ceremony for 50 young women and their families. On Aug. 15 of this year, an even larger ceremony was held for 70 young women.

This transformation was preceded and supported by studies conducted in 1991 and 1992 by PATH and Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (WYWO). The latter is a Kenyan women's organization committed to improving the health and welfare of Kenyan women. PATH develops health programs and technologies that fit the economies and cultures of developing nations around the world.

The studies, in the Kenyan districts of Kisii, Meru, Narok and Samburu, revealed the prevalence of female genital mutilation in these areas. These practices are most widespread in Kisii, where more than 95 percent of young women are circumcised by age 12. Female genital mutilation is practiced in more than 50 percent of the districts in Kenya.

The new ceremonies were developed through a series of workshops conducted by the communities and the women's organizations, with support from PATH. The groups developed an array of new materials, including poems, skits, and songs, as well as information sheets. The new ceremonies were first instituted in the Tharaka Nithi district of central Kenya.

In August, the actual ceremony of initiation was preceded by a "week of seclusion," which emulated the traditional healing period after circumcision. The young women were accompanied by female mentors during this week, who taught them skills they will need for their own families. Other community trainers instructed the young women on issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, relationships, and reproductive anatomy.

This period ended with a colorful ceremony attended by hundreds of community members and leaders. Festivities included singing, dancing, and dramatic presentations by the young women. The presentations included messages such as "female circumcision is outdated in modern life. Young women do not become mature by being cut, but by education."

The young women gave gifts and were showered with presents. They received new clothes and feasted with the guests on traditional food commonly served at circumcision ceremonies.

Alternative Rite to Female Circumcision Spreading in Kenya

Malik Stan Reaves, Africa News Service November 1997

New York - A growing number of rural Kenyan families are turning to an alternative to the rite of female circumcision for their daughters.

The new rite is known as 'Ntanira na Mugambo' or 'Circumcision Through Words'. It uses a week-long program of counseling, capped by community celebration and affirmation, in place of the widely criticized practice also known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Next month, residents of some 13 villages in central Kenya will celebrate the fourth installment of this increasingly popular alternative rite of passage for young females.

The first Circumcision Through Words occurred in August 1996, when 30 families in the tiny village of Gatunga, not far from Mount Kenya [THIS IS EAST OF MERU], ushered their daughters through the new program. Some 50 families participated in the program in December followed by 70 families this past August.

Circumcision Through Words grows out of collaborations between rural families and the Kenyan national women's group, Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), which is committed to ending FGM in Kenya.

It follows years of research and discussion with villagers by MYWO field workers with the close cooperation of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a nonprofit, nongovernmental, international organization which seeks to improve the health of women and children. Headquartered in Seattle, PATH has served as technical facilitator for MYWO's FGM program, providing the methodologies and other inputs to help carry it forward.

FGM is practiced in about half of the rural districts of Kenya, part of a larger international population of more than 100 million women who are believed to be subject to varying forms of FGM across Africa and parts of western and southern Asia.

FGM is generally grouped into three categories: incision, the cutting of the hood of the clitoris; excision, the cutting of the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora; and infibulation, the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia (majora and minora), and the sewing of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, except for a small opening.

In rural areas, circumcision rites are usually carried out by traditional practitioners using crude instruments and little or no anesthetics. Urban dwellers and the more affluent are more likely to seek out professional health care providers.

While in some cultures the circumcised include infants a few days old, most of the affected girls are between the ages of 4 and 12, according to a statement announcing a UN joint plan of action against FGM.

The health consequences of FGM can range from serious to deadly. "Short-term complications include severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue," according to the UN release. "Hemorrhage and infection can cause death. Long-term complications include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, urinary tract infection, infertility and childbirth complications."

Yet female circumcision encompasses more than the practice itself. It is often a deeply entrenched in the culture, wrapped in a complex shroud of assumptions, taboos, and beliefs that impact a woman's social status and personal identity.

Indeed, it seems the central defining achievement of Circumcision Through Words is not that it saves young women from the dangers of FGM but that it captures the cultural significance of female circumcision while doing away with the dangerous practice itself.

"People think of the traditions as themselves," said Leah Muuya of MYWO. "They see themselves in their traditions. They see they are being themselves because they have been able to fulfill some of the initiations," said Muuya in "Secret and Sacred," a MYWO-produced videotape, distributed by PATH, which explores the personal dangers and harmful social results of FGM. The tape explains that female circumcision has traditionally signaled when a young woman is ready for the responsibilities of adulthood.

In answer to that, Circumcision Through Words brings the young candidates together for a week of seclusion during which they learn traditional teachings about their coming roles as women, parents, and adults in the community, as well as more modern messages about personal health, reproductive issues, hygiene, communications skills, self-esteem, and dealing with peer pressure.

The week is capped by a community celebration of song, dancing, and feasting which affirms the girls and their new place in the community. Indeed, after witnessing the community's response to the first celebration, MYWO Chair Zipporah Kittony said she was "overjoyed" and believed it was a critical achievement in their efforts to eradicate FGM.

The original proponents of the new rite have since incorporated and are seeking support from international donors in order to continue and expand their efforts. Indeed, it was such broad-based cooperation that led to the effort's creation in the first place.

In addition to the initiative of the local population, the development of Circumcision Through Words is rooted in cooperation between the national women's group and PATH. Under MYWO's direction, the groups conducted surveys in 1990 and 1991 that examined the dimensions of FGM in four districts of central Kenya. Funding came from several international donors including the Ford Foundation, the Moriah Fund, Population Action International (PAI)/Wallace Global Fund, Public Welfare Foundation, and Save the Children - Canada.

MYWO and PATH have also developed public awareness campaigns that spread information on the harmful effects of female genital mutilation. According to Dr. Asha Mohamud, a PATH Senior Program Officer focusing on FGM, the two organizations agree that information, education, and public discussion are more effective tools against FGM than direct, prohibitive action.

That became clear recently after Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi declared his intent to abolish the practice. "It led to a terrific backlash," she said, including circumcisions in the middle of the night and a rush to circumcise girls at a younger-than-usual age, in an effort to beat the ban.

Accompanying this Kenyan initiative is an international effort to increase global pressure on the issue. In April of this year, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund announced a joint plan to significantly curb female genital mutilation over the next decade and completely eliminate the practice within three generations.

Many governments have outlawed the practice in their own territories, including the United States in September of last year, while they seek strategies to manage the problem. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working through the Centers for Disease Control and the Immigration and Naturalization Service with a host of non-governmental organizations to develop the means to help thousands of African females at risk within its borders. However, such efforts are complicated by criticism from some within the African community who see such actions as racist and intrusions upon African cultural practices.

Efforts like Circumcision Through Words offer a promising approach to resolving this controversial issue, at least within practicing communities, said Dr. Mohamud, since there are many people who would like to end the practice yet are not able to face the social ostracism that would entail. Yet, despite the continuing successes of Circumcision Through Words, proponents of traditional circumcision are still numerous in these communities.

"You cannot change Culture overnight," said Peter Kali, District Officer in the Gatunga area of Kenya, during the recent celebration.

Ending the Nightmare Passage to Womanhood

Judith Achieng', Interpress Service, January 1998

The nightmare of female circumcision has haunted hundreds of teenage girls during the August-to-December school vacation, but many at last were able to choose to an alternative rite of passage to womanhood.

Some 65 girls became women last month without having to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in a simple ceremony organised by a local women's group in Tharaka, a remote village some 200 kilometres from here.

"I am happy I didn't have to go through the nightmare," says 19-year-old Ruth Mukiri, whose batch of graduants was the fourth to have done the 'alternative rites of passage' in Tharaka since August 1996. Thus far, a total of some 400 girls have graduated into womanhood in this way.

Among the Meru, an ethnic group living on the slopes of Mount Kenya, about 300 kms north of Nairobi, circumcision - which involves cutting off part of the female genitalia - for centuries has been a deep-rooted and compulsory rite for most local girls.

During such ceremonies, the girl undergoes the knife in front of her mother's hut after which she is kept in seclusion until the wound heals, then all relatives are called to celebrate, according to Aniceta Keriga, area representative of 'Maendeleo Ya Wanawake' an umbrella of Kenyan women's groups.

The umbrella has been campaigning against FGM which, doctors say, can result in complications during childbirth, and infections such as tetanus and sexually transmitted diseases including the dreaded HIV/AIDS.

Some girls take long to heal while others die after bleeding excessively during the circumcision, according to a nurse in a local dispensary here. "We have been treating one particular case for the last three years," she says.

According to medical records, at least 50 percent of women in Kenya have been circumcised.

The idea of an alternative rite of passage for girls first came from a group of 20 Tharaka women who had been enlightened on the ills of the practice in 1995. "They came to us for help because they did not want their daughters to be circumcised," says Keriga.

Since then, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Nairobi-based Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (Path), have been training women's groups to educate the community on FGM.

"The most important thing to me is that the initiative against FGM has come from members of the community," says Sam Radeny who works for Path. "They have seen it as a problem and are attempting to solve it."

The alternative rite of passage is similar to the traditional one except that it does not involve FGM, according to Radeny. "During our seclusion period of five days, we teach the girls all they would be taught traditionally after which we call the community to celebrate," he says.

Jane Meme of Save the Children - Canada, an international organisation funding the anti-FGM drive here, explains that feasting and dancing have to be included as part of the ceremony to show other members of the Meru community that the only wrong thing about their ceremonies is FGM.

"Most of them do not object as long as there is plenty of food during the ceremony," she says.

Since the alternative was introduced in Tharaka, the FGM rate there has gone down to 70 percent, according to various sources. Before then at least 95 percent of girls in the area were circumcised.

Keriga and her group say the FGM rate would have been much lower were it not for the fact that their efforts have met with resistance from people who view the alternative rites as a threat to their culture. "They go from door to door with disparaging rumours about us," she explains. "Some of them say we inject the girls with contraceptives while some have gone as far as calling us devil worshippers."

Such rumours are meant to prevent girls like 12-year-old Jacinta Kawai from attending the alternative rite of passage. "Many people tried to persuade my father to refuse to let me go," she says.

Naturally, people who earn their living from FGM are dead set against Keriga's group.

"They should not be allowed to go on like this," says 65-year- old Mariama Kirote who claims that before the "evil" group descended on her village, she could make as much as 30,000 shillings (500 U.S. dollars) in one circumcision season.

The cost of circumcising one girl in Tharaka, where the average monthly income of households is less than 10 U.S. dollars is about 17 US dollars in addition to two goats, other food and traditional beer for the circumcisers.

Maendeleo Ya Wanawake and Path say people like Kirote still oppose them despite assurances that they would be absorbed into the project. "They cannot accept to join the group because they earn a lot more than we have offered them," says Raden.

Kenya, like many other African countries, has no law explicitly prohibiting FGM although it is a signatory to the United Nations Human Rights Convention which brands it a violation of the rights of girls.

In 1990, Kenya's government announced that it had officially banned FGM, but the country's male-dominated parliament passed no law prohibiting it. In fact in May 1997, a motion seeking to outlaw FGM was defeated in the house.

Meru elders reject female cut

The Nation newspaper (Nairobi), 30 March 1999

Nairobi - The Njuri Ncheke (tribal court) elders in Nyambene District have called for an alternative rite of passage to replace female circumcision.

At the closing of a one-week seminar at Maua Youth Polytechnic yesterday, the elders said that though female circumcision had been banned among the Ameru community in 1954, it had continued because the provincial administration was unwilling to stop it.

They blamed women for perpetuating the practice by organising secret circumcision ceremonies for their daughters despite being aware of the risks involved.

A nurse at the Nyambene District Hospital, Ms Grace Thirindi, urged girls to ignore those encouraging them to undergo the ritual, saying some girls had contracted HIV/Aids because of the unhygienic method used.


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