Breaking Free: Life After Saying No to Female Genital Mutilation

by Noah Wekesa

The sun was shining bright on the faces of the young Maasai girls as they eagerly walked towards the venue of the Post Community Led Alternative Passage of Rites (CL-ARP) symposium they were attending. With bright eyes and determined expressions, one could tell they were excited to share their experiences with their peers who had also made the brave decision to say no to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

The symposium was focused on discussing the importance of education and the dangers of harmful traditional practices. The girls were thrilled to participate in the discussions and share their stories. They talked about how the alternative rite of passage had empowered them to stand up against the cultural practice of female genital mutilation and the importance of educating their communities on the harmful effects of the practice. It had been a year since the 350 girls undertook the alternative passage of rights, and their world has never been the same. They were older, wiser, and more optimistic despite the challenges they continued to face.

Female genital mutilation affects millions of girls and women worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 31 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In some countries, the prevalence rate can reach up to 98%. Additionally, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure yearly. This harmful practice violates human rights and has serious physical, psychological, and sexual health consequences. Ending it contributes to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal targets.

Around 4 million women and girls in Kenya have been subjected to FGM or one in five. In some communities, this rises as high as 94 per cent. Although these numbers have declined over recent years, they remain too high. During COVID-19, we saw an increase in cases of FGM, child marriage and sexual violence. According to a report by UNICEF, an estimated 574,000 additional Kenyan girls are at risk of undergoing FGM between now and 2030 unless urgent action is taken to prevent it.

During the symposium, the girls aged between 9 – 19 are separated into two groups of two. Those aged 9 to 12 and those aged 13 – 19.

Empowering the Next Generation:

At the age of 11 years, Samiyan decided that she would not undergo FGM. Instead, she chose to participate in the community-led alternative rite of passage (ARP) program offered by Amref Health Africa.

Samiyan’s decision was not easy. Her aunts, who underwent FGM at a young age, supported the practice and wanted Samiyan to follow in their footsteps. However, Samiyan had done her learned about the potential risks and negative consequences associated with FGM/C during the CL-ARP.

Samiyan and other pupils being empowered on matters, FGM

At first, Samiyan’s family did not support her decision, and she felt alone in her community. The CL-ARP program allowed Samiyan to learn about her rights, reproductive health, and the importance of education. She also participated in traditional dances, songs, and ceremonies, celebrating her coming of age in a way that honoured her culture without sacrificing her physical or emotional well-being.

The experience was transformative for Samiyan. She says she no longer felt alone and had found a community of girls who shared similar beliefs saying, “When we make informed choices about our bodies, it’s easier to make those ahead of us to understand the risks associated with FGM/C and the importance of protecting girls from harm”.

The difficult choice came with its share of challenges. From threats of being forced to undergo FGM/C and early marriage if she failed in school, ridicule from peers and community members who still believe in the harmful practice and feeling stressed in general.

At the end of the symposium, Samiyan and her peers were grateful for the opportunity to interact with the program team since she had no one to consult when they needed to make any decisions about their sexuality, hygiene, and goals, and she has gotten to make commitments to self through the reflection sessions.

Alone No More:

Lena*sharing her experience of being bullied at school

Lena*sharing her experience of being bullied at school

Lena’s decision to refuse FGM and undergo an alternative rite of passage program was not easy. She faced numerous challenges from her family and the community members who believed she was disrespecting their cultural traditions.

One of the main challenges Lena faced was social isolation. Her decision to reject FGM was seen as a betrayal of her cultural heritage and the norms of her community. She was shunned and ostracised by her own family and peers. They were highly disappointed in her refusal of FGM and pressured her to change her mind. They believed that she was dishonouring the family and jeopardising her prospects for marriage. This caused her to feel lonely, isolated and unsupported.

At 15, Lena also faces emotional and psychological challenges as she struggles to reconcile her beliefs with those of her family and community. She was torn between her desire to honour her family and her conviction that FGM was a harmful practice that needed to be stopped.

Despite these challenges, Lena is determined to break the FGM cycle in her community and complete her education to become a doctor. She draws her strength from the support of the ARP community and can

stay focused on her goals. She is confident that, over time, her family will begin to see the positive impact of the CL-ARP program on Lena and her peers, changing their views on FGM.

Lena is glad to have attended the symposium because she has learnt that sometimes it takes work to make the right choice. “Now, after meeting with other girls who escaped FGM through the ARP organised by Amref, I no longer feel alone and seeing that there are other girls who are going through the same experience gives me the courage” Lena explains.

Becoming Full Circle

Meet Naisula, a 19-year-old Maasai girl who refused to undergo FGM/C and instead opted for the alternative rite of passage (ARP) program offered by Amref Health Africa.

Naisula grew up witnessing the pain and trauma that FGM caused to her sisters and friends. She felt it was an unnecessary and harmful practice that needed to stop. However, she knew that going against the cultural norms of her community would not be easy.

When Naisula turned 15, her family began pressuring her to undergo FGM. They believed it was a necessary rite of passage to ensure her prospects for marriage and social acceptance in the community. Naisula, however, was determined to take a different path. She learned about the ARP program through the area chief and enrolled. The program provided her with a safe and supportive environment to learn about her rights, reproductive health, and the importance of education.

17-year-old girls attending the symposium

Since undergoing the ARP transition, Naisula has been bullied at school and home. She has been called unworthy to be a woman, but the insults strengthen her resolve to finish her education and become a lawyer. Through the ARP program, Amina gained valuable skills and knowledge that have helped her become a youth leader in her community. She is now a proud advocate for girls’ rights and continues to speak out against harmful traditional practices. Naisula believes that every girl has the right to a safe and healthy transition into adulthood and that ARP programs are a powerful tool to help achieve this goal.

The post-ARP follow-up symposium programme helps girls at risk of FGM and early marriage to share their experiences, interact with their peers, and make new friends, personal growth, emotional support and advice on health and wellness.

Thanks to programs like the alternative rite of passage, more and more girls in Maasai land are choosing to reject FGM and embrace new attitudes and beliefs about respecting girls’ and women’s rights and dignity. Though there is still much work to be done, Samiyan, Lena and Naisula’s story is a testament to the power of choice, education, and empowerment in the face of deeply entrenched cultural practices.

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