WARNING :- GRAPHIC CONTENT WHICH SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTURBING
Sylvia was 9 when her parents wanted to marry her off to a 49 year old man from her village. 9.
Part of the marital process, especially in the tribal areas in Africa includes a process of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. This is a process where either one of the Labia Majorus or Labius Minora are cut off or both. It happens to girls in quite a few countries with varying reasons, including religion and to reduce promiscuity or even to keep the vagina clean, but in this instance as well as the previous it is a ‘right of passage’ to womanhood and is almost exclusively carried out in the period before marriage.
Shockingly though, this age is younger than in the past – the reality is that apparently girls at the original age of 14/15, which I’m told was the age girls used to be married off at, are now all to aware of their rights and so it is easier to get it done at an earlier age.
A traditional custom, inherent to the culture which used to be celebrated freely and openly within the community is now approached in a much more consciously seedy manner… Stories of girls being circumcised at night, being woken up in order to be circumcised are prevalent and as such more and more girls are starting to run away from home.
This is all despite the practice being illegal in Kenya.
The ideas stem in one way or other from female promiscuity. Female circumcision is meant to be a way to encourage and maintain fidelity, a way to prevent promiscuity and a way for a girl to be ‘clean’, so engrained in cultural thinking that men very rarely will marry a girl if they’re not circumcised.
Why is it bad?
Well health wise it’s bad for various reasons, the way it is done includes nothing more than a traditional razor blade and even still there are occasions where groups of girls are circumcised simultaneously increasing the chances of transmitting things like HIV/AIDS to others who may have not had it previously.
No pain killers are used, blades at times aren’t cleaned from girl to girl, the job is done by ‘traditional birth mothers’, the process is done in 10-15 minutes with revisits to check up on job done in between other girls being circumcised at the same time, and there is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a lot of scarring which can take around a month to heal.
There are cases of women’s circumcision being followed up by a stitching up of the vagina, leaving only the necessary size hole to allow the girl to go to the loo, this though is apparently more prevelant within the Somalian community… The stitching is apparently removed culturally when they get married. In the Maasai community apparently men don’t like to marry virgin brides, which means that young boys and girls are seemingly encouraged to have sex from as young as 9… What determines these situations though I don’t know.
The process and subsequent scarring in the initial aftermath can take on average around a month to heal but at times longer depending on how it is aggravated as well as the increased risk from infection. Issues also arise further when the girl/woman (it is common for teenage pregnancies) to have further difficulties present themselves during childbirth.
Issues that can occur are difficulty in delivering due to scarring, the ripping of the vagina further during childbirth, and with that an increased loss of blood whilst also causing the child bearer vast amounts of additional pain.
So how can it be tackled?
From observations it can’t last, there are far too many negative side effects. When I visited Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre, two new girls had just turned up having run away from the sheer thought that it may happen to them and the centre was having to turn one of its classrooms into another dormitory due to overcrowding. On a basic principle if someone’s health is jeopardized due to something or pain is inflicted or an individual simply doesn’t want something and it is forced on them through whatever means should it be peer pressure or otherwise, it should be questioned.
How things are changing
Tasaru are working at changing these traditions, but not by force – simply through self awareness and education, encouraging communities to discuss the practice whilst also educating them to the negative side effects of the practice and the health hazards they may unknowingly be causing to members of their tribe/community.
An increasingly Christian community, churches are pitching in to help sway mentalities away from the practice, being used again for self-awareness and educational purposes. Focus groups are up and running and partnerships have been created with the leadership in the communities in where it is most prevalent with police and headteachers also being made aware of what is going on and also creating those links should anything suspicious arise with the girls within the schools.
It isn’t that straight forward, should a girl run she is disowned – a family structure is quite strict and patriarchal, men are commonly known to have the last word… if they are caught running they can often be beaten, enhancing the fear amongst girls to run in the first place.. the attitudes towards police and perhaps even the practices of police in issues unrelated need to improve – Silvia told me of how when she saw the police arrive to help stop her circumcision she ran – police have a reputation for underhand practices within the Masaai community and have been known to beat individuals ‘without reason’. Whilst Tasaru has a good reputation it doesn’t stop fathers from attempting to drunkenly get their daughters back, turning up at the increasingly well known centre to claim their daughter back, at times annoyed that their daughter has disrespected their authority or even shamed him, a request which is abruptly refused.
Tasaru are doing great work in battling this issue, but the issue isn’t confined just to Kenya and is spread much further afield, in Egypt I was told 80-90% of women are circumcised, this time mainly due to religious implications – if women and girls aren’t in favour of it should it be happening at all? Is religion or a proper procedural environment good enough reason for it to continue either? Will it diminish if those involved are just given access to a proper education or are simply just made aware of the implications and risks that come with it? It seems to be the case that this issue is at a tipping point, it is being addressed, communities who have practiced it previously are now abdicating against it and that I hope continues quickly. There are instances where this issue effects entire countries which are still not being tackled but there are seemingly far more issues facing these due to the fundamental beliefs that keep the process from being practiced but hopefully this is something that will change with time in a way which allow gender equality and a freedom of choice irrespective.