What you need to know:
- Maria Nyanchama Nyariki, a reformed circumciser, says the harmful tradition was never backed up by a clear context among the Abagusii.
- The vice remains high even though Maria maintains that the community abandoned the practice altogether after the government outlawed it in 2011.
For decades, Maria Nyanchama Nyariki transformed thousands of young girls into young adults through the now outdated Gusii tradition of female circumcision. Nyanchama, now 85, dropped the knife just before female circumcision was outlawed in Kenya.
Although she struggles with a failing memory, the retired traditional female cutter now agrees that the practice, popularly known as female genital mutilation (FGM) is no longer useful.
“Ogosara (circumcising girls) was important because it meant that once one underwent it, she was no longer a child but a young woman,” Maria says.
On the international stage, FGM has been declared a human rights violation. She discloses that her decision to engage in the cutting of young girls was necessitated by a chain of unpleasant events that afflicted her early adulthood.
“I started circumcising girls because of a number of calamities that befell my family. Many of my family members got struck with various illnesses, and as I sought medication for my people, someone told me ‘please, stop what you are doing and start circumcising girls to drive away the evil spirits from your home,’” Maria says.
“I was told that if I embark on performing the circumcision rituals, the evil spirits would fade away and my people would be fine.”
She discloses that the first girl she cut was her granddaughter. “I started with my granddaughter and the rest is history.”
She goes on: “I kept on cutting the girls for many years until my husband passed away. That's the time I quit. I simply stopped because my husband was no more. By the time the government outlawed the rituals, I had long abandoned the trade.”
She explained that the practice was not crude but unhygienic.
“We could splash millet flour directly into the girl's genitals before we made her sit on a stone. After that I would use a sharp razor blade to cut off her clitoris.
“When we discovered that making the girl sit on the stone was hurting the initiate, we devised new methods of laying her on the table during the operation and this was the best method. After cutting off the clitoris, we applied penicillin on the wound and the girl healed,” she recalls.
“We used medicated spirit and penicillin to clean the wound and after a few days, the wound healed.
“I used to get paid Sh200 per child circumcised. In a day, I could cut 10 to 20 initiates. I could go to Bonchari, Bobasi and even Bomachoge.”
Also read: FGM declines by 6pc in eight years
She explains that since time immemorial, the Abagusii practised FGM without a clear context.
“In reality, I cannot tell what necessitated this practice. We now respect the law and our girls are now growing without going through circumcision.”
But even though traditional circumcision of females in Kisii has reduced remarkably, cutters are now changing tack. They employ medicalised ways to circumvent the law. Medicalised FGM is performed by any healthcare provider in a public or private clinic, at home or elsewhere.
According to the recently released Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 report, FGM prevalence is 15 per cent in the country among girls and women aged between 15 and 49.
The vice remains high in Kisii even though Maria maintains that the community abandoned the practice altogether after the government outlawed it in 2011, and despite efforts by the government, human and gender rights activists.
In view of the situation, Kisii Woman Representative Dorice Aburi has partnered with the gender activists to champion an alternative rite of passage for girls.
Last week, Ms Aburi witnessed the graduation of hundreds of girls who had undergone the alternative rite of passage at a ceremony in South Mugirango. They were trained in what adulthood entails.
Also read: Intense awareness campaign key to ending FGM
“We are expanding our programme to cover boys. For now, we have concentrated on the girls because they are the most affected, but we realise the need to involve the boy child for total success of this programme. In December, I will host 500 girls and an equal number for boys,” said Ms Aburi.
Young Democrats Executive officer Esnas Nyaramba said efforts to address medicalisation of FGM have involved advocacy, awareness campaigns, and training programmes for administrators, the media, the police and healthcare professionals.
She said the approach to ending FGM should be multi-faceted, involving community engagement, education, legal frameworks, and support for organisations working to eradicate the harm.
The gender activist emphasised that FGM has no medical benefits and can lead to serious health consequences, both physical and psychological, for survivors.