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Demand Equity

Good news: How FGM practices are changing among the Maasai

What kind of things did you bargain for when you were seven?

When I was seven I was always bargaining with my parents for just “five more minutes” of playtime before I had to do my chores. I made deals so I could have sleepovers at my friend’s house, and once negotiated with my sister to trade my five shiny pennies for her dull quarter. I’m just kidding, my sister is too smart for that trick. Needless to say, the bargains and deals I made as a seven year old were pretty trivial (although they didn’t always feel like that at the time).

Blog: Kristie Bell

The same can’t be said for Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya. When she was seven she made the ultimate bargain by agreeing to undergo female genital mutilation in exchange for finishing her education. In Ntaiya’s culture of the Maasai, it is routine for girls to experience FGM or “the cut” as it’s viewed as a right of passage into womanhood. When Ntaiya came of age she said to her father “I can only go through the genital mutilation if [you let] me go back to school." Her father agreed, assuming it would take Ntaiya a long time to recover from the procedure (and that’s if she properly recovered at all). Thankfully Ntaiya had a quick recovery and was able to continue her education until she eventually obtained a doctorate in Education.

With this degree Ntaiya became an advocate for women’s rights, and started a school in Kenya to help reduce the rates of child marriage and FGM. You see, Dr. Ntaiya places two conditions on attendance at her school.

"One, no girl will be mutilated. That's something that the parents have to agree to, they might not like it initially but after we work with them, we train them, we talk to them about what actually female genital cutting does to the life of a girl. Parents — the fathers, have joined in," she said. “The other [condition] is that they will not be married until they finish high school or beyond, until they're adults."

Of the 235 girls attending Dr. Ntaiya’s school, none of them have been cut or mutilated. This is a statistic to be celebrated!

Flickr: Javier Carcamo

Thanks to education campaigns and alternative practices FGM rates have declined in Kenya. The Maasai of Esiteti in southern Kenya have decided to give up their long practiced tradition of “cutting,” and are adopting a new alternative rite of passage instead. In this new ceremony, girls between the ages of 9-12 are given traditional beads and clothes to mark their rite of passage into womanhood. They attend a two week class where they spend time dancing, singing customary songs, and learning about the role of women in their community. In the more traditional tribes, livestock is slaughtered and the girls are advised to drink the raw blood. Some blood is also sprinkled on their head to identify those who have undergone the custom. On the new practice, one young girl said, “we real[ly] enjoy the new ceremony because it doesn’t interfere with our health and education.” She went on to add the new practice is not brutal like the cut either.

As a vegetarian, drinking raw blood is a little too much for my own tastes, but I like how this new practice is able to pass on important traditions without causing bodily harm to the girls (or should I say emerging women).

The passage into womanhood doesn’t have to be painful, and in the future, I hope more cultures can follow the example set by the Maasai and replace FGM with an alternative rite of passage. Together, we can end this practice and protect the rights of women and girls.

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