Female genital mutilation, or circumcision, is rampant in parts of Kenya. The procedure involves removing part or all of the external female genitalia and is typically performed on girls as a rite of passage into womanhood. Critics describe it as female genital mutilation, or FGM. In the town of Meru, Eastern province, the Catholic Church has come up with an alternative rite of passage for girls and young women.
A group of grandmothers demonstrate how to serve food and which herbs to use to cure specific ailments.
They are teaching the next generation the secrets of womanhood, like their mothers and grandmothers before them.
These girls and young women in the Meru area of Kenya are going through traditional training of how to be a good wife, mother and woman, but with a difference: at the end of the process they have a graduation ceremony and receive a certificate rather than undergo a procedure in which part of their genitalia is removed.
The modified traditional training, called the Alternative Rite of Passage, is a project of the Catholic Diocese of Meru and Catholic Relief Services.
Coordinator Martin Koome says the project aims to eradicate the harmful practice of female circumcision while preserving local culture.
“Today is the graduation ceremony for the girls,” he said. “There will be songs and dance. The rhythm, the dance, the way it is done is like the way it was done in the past, but the messages have been changed to reflect what we would like the girls to learn currently.”
Girls and young women in several locations across the Meru Diocese spend one week away from their families in what is called “seclusion.”
They are taught lessons on anatomy, human rights, the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS transmission and infection, how to relate to their peers and parents, and other life skills.
Marion Mworia is a retired banker who is one of the volunteer teachers in the Alternative Rite of Passage, which is usually held two or three times a year.
“And we teach them, the taboos which Mameru used to have, that they are told, when you are not circumcised, you cannot be married. When you are uncircumcised you cannot get pregnant. When you are uncircumcised, you are not a grown-up woman,” she said. “But we tell them these are just myths.”
Justa Mwenda, 16, wants to be a lawyer. She says the teaching given during the one-week seclusion has given her skills on how to express herself without fear and to stand up for human rights.
She says she also learned a lot about the dangers of female circumcision.
“I will try my best to see that my children or our children are not circumcised,” she said. “I will even help those uneducated parents and tell them about these dangers of FCR so that my age mates or my friends will not be circumcised. I would like to have seminars, I will be organizing with others so that we can teach others how to behave, how to respect elder peoples, how to work hard so that we will be good children and parents in our future.”
Female circumcision is illegal in Kenya. In communities that continue the practice, school dropouts, marriages of girls as young as 12 years old and early childbirth can be consequences of female circumcision.
Bernard Gituma is a member of the Meru Council of Elders, a body concerned with maintaining Meru culture.
“Most of our daughters who did not go through the circumcision, most of them have gone through schools and even to universities,” he said. “They are happily married. But those who went to the circumcision very early, they got married very young and their lives have not being improved.”
Justa Mwenda, her peers, and her family say the alternative rite of passage is a ticket to an empowered life.
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