Alternative rites of passage help fight FGM in Meru

Some of of the girls who went through an alternative rite of passage seminar organised by Materi Catholic Parish Women Association in Tunyai, Tharaka-Nithi County on December 18, 2015. Churches and NGOs have intensified anti-FGM seminars during the December holidays when most girls are circumcised. PHOTO | ALEX NJERU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • When the colonial government outlawed female circumcision in 1957, girls from Meru North resisted the move.
  • When the practice went underground, non-governmental organisations and churches came up with alternative rites of passage dubbed ‘Ntanira na mugambo’ (circumcision with words).
  • Despite the sustained campaign against the illegal practice, cases of FGM have been reported in Igembe and Tharaka this year.
  • To sustain the war on FGM, some of the girls who have gone through the alternative rite of passage have formed groups for follow-up.

While the wave of female circumcision continues to sweep through parts of Kerio Valley where one girl has been reported dead and a record 1,200 circumcised, in Meru, the war on the vice has intensified through alternative rite of passage programmes.

“Meru’s war against female genital mutilation dates back to the ‘Ngaitaana’ generation of the early 1960s. This is when girls defied authorities and demanded the cut,” Ms Susan Kabuutia from Mutuati, Igembe North recounts.

When the colonial government outlawed female circumcision in 1957, girls from Meru North resisted the move.

Ms Kabutia says the enraged girls protested by declaring that they would circumcise themselves. As a result, the rebellious age group was nicknamed the Ngaitaana generation (‘I will circumcise myself’ generation).

Njuri Ncheke elders publicly condemned FGM in the 1950’s.

When the practice went underground, non-governmental organisations and churches came up with alternative rites of passage dubbed ‘Ntanira na mugambo’ (circumcision with words) to empower young girls to resist the cut.

From right: Ms Susan Kabuutia, Ms Angelica Mukoamwathi, Ms Regina Cioiti, Mr Peter Mung'athia and Mr Sammy Kiriiri during the interview in Mutuati, Igembe North. They have been in the forefront in the fight against FGM by acting as trainers in alternative rite of passage seminars. PHOTO | DAVID MUCHUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

ALTERNATIVE RITES OF PASSAGE

Ms Margaret Ikiara, a director with Community Initiative for Rural Development (Ciford) in Tigania East and Igembe North, has been assessing economic projects initiated by women groups, where she has been engaged in the war against FGM.

Since 2005, Ms Ikiara has been engaging the communities through alternative rites of passage for teenage girls.

Traditionally, all Meru boys and girls had to go through a rite of passage (circumcision) that marked transition from childhood to adulthood.

The rites included the cut, intense period of seclusion and mentorship after which a girl was considered ripe for marriage.

It is upon this practice that anti-FGM campaigners in Meru started organising alternative rites of passage ceremonies where girls are secluded in seminars and imparted with positive cultural values while being encouraged to say no to FGM.

Besides Ciford, the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation and the Catholic and Methodist churches have been at the forefront in holding the alternative rite of passage seminars in Meru and Tharaka-Nithi counties.

Some of the girls who have been educated by Ciford in anti-FGM campaigns. PHOTO | DAVID MUCHUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

HOLDS SEMINARS

Ms Ikiara says she started hosting alternative rite of passage seminars during December holidays in Muthara, Tigania where female circumcision was prevalent then.

“When we started the alternative rite of passage seminars, FGM was being done secretly in Tigania East. Girls would be hidden at their grandmothers’ or aunts’ homes for the cut.

“Today, it is unheard of in this part of Meru. We have now moved to Igembe North where the vice is existent,” Ms Ikiara says.

Despite the sustained campaign against the illegal practice, cases of FGM have been reported in Igembe and Tharaka this year.

About three cases of FGM have been reported in Igembe where about six girls were found to have been circumcised.

In August 2015, police arrested a couple allegedly involved in the secret circumcision of their four teenage daughters.

The girls aged between 14 and 16 recounted how 10 elderly women accompanied by their mother stormed their room as they slept.

“They applied concoctions on our faces and led us out of the house before we were circumcised,” recounted one of the victims.

Mrs Monica Meeme (right) an anti-FGM activist in Igembe North with some of the girls who have undergone the alternative rite of passage at her home in Kiengu.. PHOTO | DAVID MUCHUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

WOMAN ARRESTED

In the same month, a woman was arrested for circumcising a girl in Kangeta, Igembe Central.

She was arrested after she was sought by the girl’s parent to correct a cut gone wrong.

And in September, police in Igembe South arrested a 56-year-old woman for circumcising her one-and-half-year-old granddaughter.

The grandmother is said to have been punishing her daughter-in-law for not being circumcised.

Last week, 10 women were arrested in a circumcision ceremony in Kithiino Village, Tharaka South.

They were arraigned in Marimanti Law Courts and charged with supporting the outlawed practice and were released on a Sh100,000 bond each.

Ms Ikiara notes that the vice has become so secretive hence the need to empower girls to resist the cut even when it is being advanced by their parents.

“During the alternative rite of passage seminars, girls are informed how FGM was done.

“We use women who have gone through it and those who understand the culture as well as medical experts. They are then taken through the dangers of the cut," she says.

CURRICULUM

The curriculum includes lessons on interacting with the opposite sex and dealing with their own sexual feelings, the importance of education, life skills, decision-making, communication, good grooming and health habits as well as the negative consequences of FGM and early marriages.

At the end of the one week seclusion and training, the empowered girls make a public declaration to fight FGM and hold street demonstrations condemning the vice.

The girls are also given certificates to qualify as anti-FGM ambassadors.

“We also realised that stigma is common among the communities where FGM exists. There are cases where women who have not undergone the cut are barred from cooking during ceremonies.

“The circumcised ones call the uncircumcised offensive names which results to conflicts.

“We train the girls to appreciate their wholeness so that they are not offended by the derogatory names,” Ms Ikiara explains.

Ciford director Ms Margaret Ikiara, (right), with some of the beneficiaries of the organisation's anti-FGM and economic empowerment programmes in Tigania East. PHOTO | DAVID MUCHUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

STREET DEMOS

With songs and chants in coded and clear Kimeru language, the girls take to the streets telling off the supporters of FGM and urging their peers to embrace education.

Ms Angelica Mukoamwathi from Mutuati, one of the trainers at Ciford seminars, says she braved stigmatisation and name calling from neighbours after she refused to take her daughters for the cut in the 70s.

“There was a lot of pressure from relatives and neighbours. Even teachers were having their girls undergo the cut then. I resisted because I had been trained on its negative impact in church. My two daughters are now some of the most learned in the village,” Ms Mukoamwathi says.

To sustain the war on FGM, some of the girls who have gone through the alternative rite of passage have formed groups for follow-up.

Mrs Monica Meeme, a resident of Kiengu in Igembe North says the group of 50 girls meet during holidays to encourage each other to pursue education.

“More than 200 girls have gone through the seminars here at Kiengu. There have been cases of FGM in this area affecting even married women.

“We meet often strive to ensure none is lured into the cut. The girls share experiences and remind each other on the need to shun FGM,” Mrs Meeme says.

The Ciford director says that the organisation has trained more than 1,000 girls and initiated income generating projects in areas where the vice has subsided.

SUPPORTING WOMEN

“In Tigania East, we are supporting women through providing water tanks and dairy goats at subsidised rates. We are working with women groups that have been partnering with us in the war against FGM,” Ms Ikiara says.

Tharaka Women Welfare Group chairperson Anicenta Kiriga, who led a seminar for 200 girls in Gatunga, noted that the seminar was necessary as FGM was still a practice in some parts of the county.

Materi Catholic Parish Women Association Chairlady Juliet Karimi says the church must be at the centre of the war against the FGM by teaching the young girls about its dangers right from childhood.

About 65 girls were also taken through an alternative rite of passage seminar at Materi Youth Polytechnic.

During her recent visit to Meru, Anti-female Genital Mutilation Board chairperson Lina Jebii Kilimo regretted that the practice is still practiced in Meru and called for concerted efforts to end it.

She said the board is committed to implementing the law and the newly approved sustainable development goals (SDGs) on good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality.

Stakeholders believe that empowering the girl child is the only way to overcome the illegal practice.

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