FGM: Maasai Women Speak Out
Introduction by Ledama Olekina
A major international movement has developed over the past 20 years to eradicate the cultural practice of female circumcision that takes place in many African and Asian countries. At the Nairobi International Conference on Female Genital Mutilation in September, attendees from nations where female circumcision is practiced urged states to adopt political, legal, and social measures to eliminate the tradition. But the activists leading this movement have failed to understand the cultures behind the practice, and their ignorance is dangerous. Legislation, particularly the criminalization of FGM, and other external pressures that do not take local culture into account can have deadly consequences.
Before Maasai girls in Kenya and Tanzania are married, they must undergo circumcision in a ceremony that 99 percent of the time is sponsored by their prospective suitors. Aside from the actual surgical procedure, the rite includes a ceremony in which the entire community comes together to celebrate the girl’s passage to adulthood.
Many Maasai families cannot afford to give their children formal schooling, so to protect their daughters from lives of poverty they choose to marry them off at a young age. Because Maasai girls are traditionally considered children until they are circumcised, it is seen as imperative for a Maasai girl to undergo the circumcision rite before she is married. This strongly ingrained cultural belief propels families to go to great lengths to complete the circumcision. Over the past 10 years, I have witnessed people in my Kenyan Maasai community being arrested for practicing female circumcision. I have seen young Maasai children nearly starve to death because their parents were sent to jail. Most painfully, I have heard of girls from my community as young as 10 years old undergoing circumcision and being married.
Representatives of many non-Maasai organizations come to my village and talk about how young girls are mutilated. They tell us that unless we stop the practice, we are all going to be prosecuted. In most cases, these forceful approaches have not succeeded. Many families are now circumcising their girls at extremely young ages, before outside organizations have a chance to get suspicious and take action against them. Many Maasai, particularly those who live near urban areas, no longer announce their circumcision ceremonies. In some cases, the main circumcision ceremony takes place days after the surgery. I have seen young girls taken into hiding to be circumcised out of view of the authorities.
Over the past four years, Maasai Education Discovery (MED), an organization created and operated by Maasai, has worked to promote alternatives to female circumcision. Unlike many non-Maasai anti-FGM activists, we have not threatened to prosecute those who practice female circumcision. Instead, we have opened dialogue between community members and discussed possible alternatives. We have also encouraged young girls to speak out about their true feelings on the practice. In cases where a girl is being forced into circumcision against her will, we ensure that the girl is taken away from her family to a secure place. After some time, we initiate a reconciliation process to bring the girl back together with her parents and community. These strategies work.
MED also has initiated a program to involve the men. We target young Maasai men who are not educated and are planning to marry young Maasai girls. Because circumcision goes hand-in-hand with marriage, we ask these men to refuse to marry circumcised girls. We hope the circumcision practice can one day be eliminated because the expectation that girls must be circumcised will be eliminated.
Because of the negativity surrounding discussion of the practice, many Maasai are not willing to talk about the practice in public. Many of us who have been formally educated and exposed to the Western world understand that female circumcision, particularly the surgical part of the ceremony, must end. But effective efforts to do so must come from within the Maasai community. Maasai women and men must be educated about the dangers in order for them to find workable alternatives to a practice that has been a significant part of Maasai culture for generations.
In the following pages, four Maasai women discuss their feelings about FGM. International activists must listen to them.
Ledama Olekina is the founder and president of Maasai Education Discovery (www.maasaieducationdiscovery.org).
Agnes Kainett Kisai
MED student from Ewuaso Kedong’ in the Rift Valley of Kenya
The type of circumcision that the Maasai perform is called clitoridectomy, in which the entire clitoris or part of the clitoris, and at times the adjacent labia, is removed. The primary reason female circumcision is practiced among the Maasai is that it is considered a rite of passage. Circumcision is a cultural practice in the Maasai community, not a religious practice. It elevates a girl from childhood to the status of adulthood, and is necessary for a girl to be considered a complete woman. Another important belief among the Maasai is that the rite has an ability to reduce the woman's desire for sex, making her less likely to engage in pre-marital sex or adultery.
Being a Maasai woman who knows the effects of FGM, I feel obliged to tell about the harm that is brought to the girl. Excessive bleeding can occur during the practice and can lead to death. Today, because the procedure often has to take place in hiding, female circumcision is mostly performed using shared and unsterilized objects, which can lead to HIV/AIDS and tetanus, and damage organs including the vaginal walls. Inflammation of the cells around the circumcision area also occurs shortly after the operation. The long-term effects of FGM include chronic infections of the reproductive parts, pain during sexual intercourse, and difficulties in childbirth.
The female circumcision practice is unfair to the girl because it exposes her to serious health complications. It is also mostly done against her wishes and becomes a violation of her rights. In the Maasai community, once a girl undergoes circumcision, she can start a family. This belief has contributed greatly to the practice of early marriage among the Maasai.
My parents, though they are illiterate, are against female circumcision—an unusual position for any typical Maasai. Though they were once in support of the practice, they came to change after I convinced them of the dangers. Being Christian and members of a denomination that does not allow the practice also encouraged them a great deal. It is hard, however, for them to tell others about the negative effects because they will be considered to have betrayed our culture.
The Maasai people value our culture. Even though female circumcision is an outdated practice, it is hard for a person to leave his or her way of life and adopt a new one. If this change has to happen, it will happen gradually.
Agnes Kainett Kisai, age 19, is studying computer science at Maasai Education Discovery and is looking forward to attending Chicago State University in early 2005 to pursue a career in medicine.
Eunice Sitatian Kaelo MED student from Narok in the Rift Valley of Kenya
Female circumcision is a rite of passage among the Maasai that marks change from childhood to adulthood. Though some groups such as the Christian Church, educators, and some non-governmental organizations have made an effort to abolish this practice, the Maasai, according to my mother, are stubborn. She says, “Female circumcision is our culture. Why should we be forced to abandon it when we were born into it? Abandoning our culture would be annoying our ancestors. It would bring a curse to the entire community.”
My mother also says that circumcision does not affect the sexual activity of a Maasai woman as many Maasai believe. Their heavy workloads, especially during times of nomadic moves, affect them more. The women are expected to build the houses whenever they move to a new place. During this time they also live under unhygienic conditions and, during times of drought, suffer malnutrition because they depend on the animals for their diets. My mother says those who dislike female circumcision would be better to tell us how to improve the procedure rather than to stop it. Why should we be forced to adopt a culture that is not ours?
In my own view, female circumcision should be abolished. To start with, it causes a lot of pain to the initiates. Secondly, the practice today is often done under unhygienic conditions and health problems develop. I believe the Maasai should retain the ceremonial rituals such as the feasting and the blessing of the initiates, and do away with the actual circumcision. Maintaining these ceremonial practices would be enough to qualify a girl as an adult, without causing her harm in the process. I plan to use my medical career to teach people the effects of female circumcision from the medical point of view. I think my community would respond better to a Maasai daughter than to a foreigner. I was circumcised when I was younger, before I understood the dangers. But I am glad that FGM was performed on me, because now I can talk from experience when I campaign against it.
Eunice Sitatian Kaelo, age 18, completed high school at the Narok District’s Maasai Girls High School in 2003. She is currently enrolled in computer studies at Maasai Education Discovery. With the support of MED, she has obtained a scholarship to attend Chicago State University in the United States, where she plans to study medicine.
Evelyn Nashipae Nkadori MED student from the Magadi Division in the Rift Valley of Kenya
Female circumcision is regarded from a different perspective by the rest of the world than it is by the Maasai, but the fact that we practice it does not make us lesser people. According to our traditions and practices, it is meant to have a positive rather than a negative effect on the girl. It is supposed to reduce a woman’s desire for sex and reduce immorality. Another thing is that traditionally, it is a rite of passage. It marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. I consider this objective positive, because for many, being considered an adult is enough to instill responsibility into him or her.
Although female circumcision does have some positive effects, I do not encourage it. In fact, I am campaigning to encourage Maasai families say no to FGM. The procedure is torture to the woman, and it is unnecessary. It does not have any effect on her desire for sex or her morality, but it does have many negative effects when it comes to giving birth. Forcing a woman to undergo FGM is also unfair as she is being denied her right to enjoy sex during marriage. It may cause death, as the equipment used is mostly shared and may spread diseases such as AIDS. A poorly performed procedure causes excessive bleeding, which causes death or anemia.
Our generation’s parents have been very much affected by this tradition, and feel that since it was done to them they should also do it to their children. In some cases, Christianity has changed this attitude. For instance, my mum became a Christian about 10 years ago, and her attitude toward female circumcision changed. As a result, I was not circumcised.
I am the new face of the Maasai girl and I will do all I can to help educate my community and my people positively and to ensure that I am a person who will be regarded as a source of hope in my community. Gradually we will be able to eliminate this outdated cultural practice.
Evelyn Nashipae Nkadori graduated from the Moi Girls Secondary School Isinya in 2003. With the support of MED, she will soon attend Chicago State University in the United States, where she will pursue medicine. She is the first-born in a family of five.
Phideline Nasieku MED student from Narok in the Rift Valley of Kenya
The fact that the Maasai community is well known for practicing female circumcision does not give room for us to be called primitive. We have always had reasons behind the practice.
In the Maasai community, circumcision is a rite of passage. It is a clear step between childhood and adulthood. Once a woman undergoes circumcision, she is ready for marriage. Maasai believe that the practice helps reduce immorality among girls because they are not allowed to engage in conjugal duties before they undergo circumcision. Boys are circumcised for similar reasons.
The Maasai believe that circumcision further helps improve people’s morality because it reduces sexual urge, preventing cases of girls engaging in sex before marriage and giving birth out of wedlock. The Maasai do not perform the practice to harm people, but rather out of love and care for their people, because they are truly concerned about their people’s morality.
The circumcision ceremony takes place in early morning. The girl first bathes with cold water, and then the operation is carried out. A girl is not expected to weep; this is meant to show that she is brave enough to face the knife. This gives her fame and respect from the community at large and she becomes a role model for the younger girls to emulate.
Female circumcision is a time-honored practice from the Maasai point of view, but it should be stopped for the betterment of the Maasai girls. Despite the Maasai’s objectives in performing female circumcision, the disadvantages of the practice are increasing. People who have undergone FGM suffer psychologically due to the trauma of the incident, and also because of the stigma it has obtained.
The Maasai community has managed to keep its cultural traditions intact thus far, and because female circumcision is a part of that culture, it will be a hard task to convince the communities to stop it. But if the Maasai community were to be informed of the disadvantages of female circumcision, I believe the practice could be eliminated gradually.
Because my parents are Christian, I was not circumcised. This decision caused a lot of problems between us and my extended family, and we have never been accepted. Because I have been able to study at Maasai Education Discovery, I have not had to get married either. If it were not for my schooling, I would have been married by now.
Being a Maasai child, I understand our weaknesses and strengths. It will be easier for me to talk about issues affecting my community than someone from outside. I believe in being a role model for my younger sisters. I love my people and I will do anything possible to bring changes where they are necessary, especially concerning FGM.
Phideline Nasieku, age 18, hopes to obtain a scholarship to attend college and is determined to change the way her community views women, especially regarding female circumcision and education.