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By Cathleen O’Grady
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), which the organization defines as any procedure involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia, or any injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The practice is prevalent in western, eastern and north-eastern Africa, where the WHO estimates that 101 million girls and women over the age of 9 have undergone FGM, with another 3 million girls at risk every year. Approximately 32% of Kenyan women between 15 and 49 years old are thought to have undergone FGM, making it a vital point of concern for Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP), Foundation Beyond Belief’s Q3 Education beneficiary.
FGM is common in the Tharaka District in Kenya, which is home to one of WGEP’s Sisters to School programs. The practice is a coming-of-age ritual, a rite of passage marking girls’ transition from childhood to adulthood, and is often conducted on children as young as 12 years old. It is common for girls who have undergone the ritual to leave school in order to start a family, the ramifications of which are dire: Younger mothers are at greater risk of maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS, and other health concerns, are less able to earn a living to provide for their families and educate their children, and are less equipped to protect themselves against abuse—and their children also have a higher risk of mortality.
To combat the harmful effects of the practice itself (including a high risk of infection and death, and long-term effects such as dangerous childbirth), as well as the impact it has on education and the rest of a woman’s life, WGEP has joined with its local partner Ntanira Na Mugambo Tharaka Women’s Welfare Project (TWWP) to work against FGM in the region. WGEP sees fighting FGM as essential to keeping girls in school, which in turn is likely to further encourage the end of the practice.
Because FGM takes place as part of the coming-of-age rite of passage, a ritual common to many cultures, WGEP recognizes that simple elimination of the practice is unlikely to occur. It represents values such as family and community bonding, as well as marriage preparations and femininity, all of which form an important part of community identity. Girls who have not undergone FGM are often shunned because of its connotations with virginity and “purity.”
The solution? An alternative rite of passage, or a “Circumcision with Words,” a program developed by WGEP with TWWP. The program provides an alternative way to celebrate girls’ rite of passage into adulthood, without FGM, by addressing the cultural and social underpinnings of the practice. Community awareness workshops and FGM curricula in adult literacy classes offer parents an opportunity to learn about the harm caused by FGM and early marriage, while outreach to community leaders encourages them to help with the eradication of FGM in their communities.
Perhaps most important, “Circumcision with Words” offers a rite of passage for girls, involving a week’s seclusion with mothers and other female role models. During this retreat, girls are exposed to empowerment workshops, and at the end, the girls’ passage into adulthood is celebrated by family and community members, with speeches and songs. A cake is cut to celebrate the rite of passage.
Since the program began in 2007, 425 girls and their families have abandoned FGM, progress that is likely to have a snowball effect as those girls themselves have families—at a healthy age.