Ten years back I was in Kenya with four other women from India. It was a women’s journey organised by the Henri-Martyn Institute based in Hyderabad in collaboration with the National Council of Churches in Kenya. We were there for 21 days traveling all over Kenya with 5 Kenyan women from different ethnic communities. We went in to the regions of North Rift valley, Garissa District in the south Kenya mainly to understand the issues of the women and how do they dealt with the same. Kenya is a country with 42 ethnic communities/tribes. Kenya has gone through several inter tribe conflicts that resulted in to mass killings, rapes and homelessness. The women have played a considerable role to build harmony and peace amongst the communities. The issues are still there but the severity and violence has settled down to large extent. We were very much moved listening to the stories of these women.
But what I was shocked with is an inhuman and painful practice which has been going for more than 5000 years. It is a practice too painful for most people to even think about, yet FGM i.e. Female Genital Mutilation is the bare-boned reality for an estimated 100 to 140 million women alive today. It is Prevalent in varying degrees throughout 28 countries (mostly in Africa, some in the Middle East and Asia).
FGM refers to the traditional ritual of cutting and removing parts of the female sexual organ for cultural of non-medical reasons. It can be performed during infancy, childhood or adolescence. The intent of the practice may be circumcision but the outcome is mutilation. In the most extreme cases, infibulation’s follows when, after excising the genitalia, the remains are sewn together with thread or thorns. FGM is typically carried out in Kenya on pre-pubescent girls as an initiation ritual into womanhood and in preparation for early marriage. Common to many cultures is the belief that a woman is made pure by undergoing the practice, primarily by suppressing her sexual desires.
Although former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi issued motions to ban FGM in 1983 and 1996, and formally outlawed its practice on girls under 18 in 2001, the ritual circumcision of young Kenyan girls continues largely unabated. One of the communities that I am going to talk about is called as “Masaai” community. We went with Margaret Koliken who is a Masaai women activist fighting to eradicate this practice.
More than 70% of Masaais live in the Jungles of Savanna. The rests of them have migrated in to towns and cities. This is through the work of the missionary organisations. Those Masaais who have converted to Christianity have got the opportunity to get educated and they have left the Jungles. But there are Masaai girls who after attaining puberty and afraid of being circumcised have fled from their homes. They get rescue and protection in the shelter homes cum boarding schools for girls in the towns. These schools are mainly run by NGOs with very little support of the Government. Kenyan Govt. has one of the lowest budgets for the education program in the country.
As we entered into the jungles there were no roads. You need a skilled driver who is acquainted about area otherwise you are lost. On the way we met Masaai youth who are called as “Moran’s” (unmarried youth of the traditional warrior group). These youth spend their time in beautifying their bodies. They move around in the forests. They are offered food by the Masaai community. Margaret told us that the Moran can enter in any hut and can have sex with any Masaai women. There are no restrictions for them.
But the rules and restrictions of Pubescent Masaai girls are not the same. As they attain puberty they are taken in to isolated huts built especially to do circumcisions. Many times the girls if they do not give consent are lured with sweets and clothes by the circumcisers or their relatives.
One of a woman named Mariam Bagayoko who attended an international conference on female genital mutilation organized by the New York-based human-rights group in June 2004 in Nairobi shared her story of mutilation which goes like this…
When she turned 14 one morning, a group of women asked her and some other girls to follow them. The women took them to a dark hut, pinned them down, grabbed a knife, and cut off parts of their genitals. Mariam’s father was waiting outside the hut in her village 100 kilometers from Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. The women told the teenager her father would shoot her if she made so much as a peep. She was also forbidden from discussing her experience with anyone. Ms. Bagayoko is now an elderly primary school teacher who eventually became a circumciser like her aunt. She recounts what she calls the “indescribable pain” of that time. She says for four weeks after the procedure, the wounds were washed every morning with soap and water and covered with cow dung, which caused her much pain.
After the circumcision for certain duration i.e. until the wound is not healed the girls are not allowed to mingle with other people in their communities. They cannot attend any social gatherings, occasions. A crown made of wire and beads is put on their head so that it is easy to identify them. We were not allowed to go near to them. Photo
The immediate complications which arise out of FGM are:
– Infection due to unhygienic conditions and use of unsterilized or crude tools.
– Hemorrhage which could result into death
– Shock due to bleeding and severe pain and anguish
– The procedure can also cause tetanus which causes death in most cases
– Contraction of HIV/ AIDS
The story of Margaret Wambete having contracted HIV signifies the helplessness of the women who become victims without having any knowledge. Margaret spent her girlhood fiercely guarding her bodily integrity but couldn’t prevent contracting HIV at age 25 as a result of FGM. Margaret describes the horrific realization of being subjected to FGM as a feeling of utter betrayal.
“It was my first child, and so I had no experience about how bad the labor pains were supposed to be,” Margaret explained. It was the persistent blood and agonizing pain after delivery that prompted her to look and see that her clitoris had been excised.
While Kenya’s overall FGM prevalence stands at 50 percent, in some parts of the country, such as the pastoral communities at Mount Elgon near the Ugandan border where Margaret hails from, virtually every girl is circumcised. When they realized her genitalia were intact — the mark of an immature, unmarriageable girl, Margaret’s birthing assistants cut her on the spot, without consultation.
As Margaret tested negative for the HIV virus prior to delivery, she is certain that the dirty communal cutting instruments that were used are responsible for her infection. Although it’s difficult to estimate how many women have contracted HIV through FGM, it is well-known that these dirty cutting instruments — running the gamut from rusty knives to glass — are reused to perform numerous circumcisions, easily transmitting infections, including sexually-transmitted diseases.
In the years following her circumcision, as the roots of HIV took hold of her system, Margaret says she was increasingly succumbing to a range of opportunistic infections. Eventually, near death, she was hospitalized.
Feeling healthier has prompted Margaret to become an advocate for the rights of infected people, as well as an activist against ritual circumcision. She volunteers with World Vision Kenya and a group called YES+, counseling people living with AIDS and delivering home-based care. Additionally, along with five other victims of FGM in her group, Margaret actively works to decry the practice. As a teacher of mathematics, physical education and Swahili, Margaret tries to influence her young female students to stay in school and avoid getting involved with boys too early.
Only one question comes in my mind “how much one can do to eradicate such kind of practices which are deep rooted and part of the system”. A woman whether she is in India or anywhere does not have control over her body. Her attaining puberty brings more restrictions then being given freedom. This signifies the insecurity and fear of the society which is universal. So what is the solution? That each one of us has to think…