MERU, 31 August 2009 (IRIN) – An ancient myth from Meru, eastern Kenya, tells of a war during which all the healthy men in the village were deployed to fight an enemy tribe, only to return and find the women had been impregnated by the men left behind, who had been deemed incapable of defending the village.
From that day on, the legend continues, Meru women have had their clitorises removed to curb their sexual appetites and ensure their marital fidelity.
The practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), once the foundation of womanhood among the Meru, is slowly dying out as people become more aware of the physical risks involved and its reinforcement of women’s inferior position in society. There is still some resistance, however, with many believing abandoning FGM/C will undermine Meru values still considered intrinsic to young girls becoming women in the community.
“Female circumcision rites had a dual role; the cut, yes, but there was also the period of seclusion following the cut, during which girls were schooled in the ways of women in Meru society – how they should behave in polite society, how they should interact with men and how to be a respectable member of society,” said Gilbert Musai, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meru, which, with the Catholic Relief Services NGO, runs an alternative rite-of-passage (ARP) that teaches local girls both new and old-school values as a replacement for FGM/C. “We are trying to find a way to link the old system to the new system.”
Old and new practices
More than 2,000 girls have been through the ARP in several Meru locations since 2007, and according to officials of the diocese, the increase in class sizes and requests for more sessions is proof that they are having the desired impact. The course lasts one week and culminates in a colourful graduation ceremony attended by parents and local leaders.
“Key to our success is the fact that we don’t put down local traditions; we don’t go around bad-mouthing Meru culture, and apart from the cut – and in order to remain friendly with cultural leaders we call it the cut and not mutilation – we teach values that these girls would ordinarily learn in preparation for womanhood, coupled with modern advice,” said Joseph M’eruaki, the diocese’s social development director.
FGM/C has been illegal since 2001 under the Children’s Act, and as a result, the counselling portion of the rite has been lost – circumcisers perform their duties under the cover of darkness, never spending enough time with the girls to impart traditional values. The ARP fulfils that role.
“Meru culture is very rich and varied, and we teach the girls that even with education, which they should pursue earnestly, they must continue to respect their own culture and be assertive in a respectful way,” said Rael Mugambi, a facilitator at the Chiakariga Girls’ High School, which recently hosted an ARP.
Lessons include self-awareness, Meru cultural values, relationships and marriage, as well as substance abuse and HIV/AIDS.
The classrooms are named after prominent Kenyan women – doctors, lawyers and legislators – to encourage the girls’ aspirations. Samantha, 16, one of the girls attending the course, says she wants to be a vascular surgeon and hopes one day to become as well-respected as the women whose names grace the classrooms.
But while Samantha’s parents support her education and her choice not to be circumcised, not all the girls enjoy the same backing. Doris, 21, did not tell her parents she would be attending an ARP but only a diocese seminar.
“My older sisters are all circumcised and so far, I have refused to give in to the pressure to be cut,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. “My parents believe that they will get more goats [bride price] for me if I am circumcised; I think that’s why they are insisting on it.”
In the meantime, her parents have refused to pay for any further education or to support Doris in her quest to open a dress-making business.
The women who carry out the procedure are equally resistant to change – not only are they losing their position as valued and respected members of society, they are also losing income.
“These women get goats, local brew and cash in exchange for their services – one girl’s circumcision can bring as much as 5,000 shillings [about US$70], so you can understand their resistance,” M’eruaki said.
The diocese has tried to start a dialogue with the circumcisers, said M’eruaki, convincing some to join local micro-finance schemes to find alternative income. However, the illegal nature of the practice means they are very hard to reach.
“Things happen slowly – when we started there was a lot of resistance, but today we find the very people opposing us come to ask us to hold more ARPs,” he added. “Slowly but surely, we will achieve the change that is needed.”
The diocese aims to start the ARPs in all its parishes in Meru, eventually letting each parish run its own every year; one parish is already running the programme independently of diocesan support.
More than half of all Meru women undergo FGM/C and while an impact assessment has yet to be done on the diocese’s ARP, separate alternative rites have registered some success. In 2005, the Family Planning Association of Kenya, through Ntanira na Kithomo, or “initiate me through education”, contributed to a 13 percent decline in the prevalence of FGM/C in Meru North District.