"Cutting girls is something our people have done for hundreds of years," Nashiru, the senior FGM 'surgeon' in the Maasai community of Ol Donyo Nyokie, told IRIN. "No one can convince us that it is wrong."
Like all six FGM practitioners who carry out hundreds of procedures every year in and around the community, Nashiru sincerely believes in the virtues of FGM.
The women believe that an uncut woman has sexual feelings for every man she comes across, and is likely to stray from her marriage. In fact, they see FGM as a tool to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in their community.
"When you cut a girl, you know she will remain pure until she gets married, and that after marriage, she will be faithful," Nashiru explained. "But when you leave a girl uncut, she sleeps with any man and brings the disease into the community."
Asked about cleanliness during the procedure, the women said nowadays they used a different disposable razor blade for each girl, instead of the traditional use of one knife to cut several girls. In addition, they now used gloves, and had replaced the cowhide base sheet with a plastic one.
Toshi Mahmoud, cut just a month ago, is 11 years old and still has the bright-eyed curiosity and boundless energy of a young girl. She does well in school, is popular with her friends, and seems to have a happy, carefree existence.
Born into the very traditional community of Ol Donyo Nyokie in central Kenya's Kajiado district, Toshi had no qualms about relating her own experience, but winced as she recalled the pain she endured when the practitioner sliced her clitoris off.
"She [the surgeon] slept in the same bed as me the night before. My mother woke me up at six o'clock in the morning and poured a bucket of ice-cold water over me, and then I was taken back into the hut and cut," she said in Kiswahili.
At just 11 years of age, Toshi is below the traditional age of cutting, but said that often, when the oldest girl came of age, her parents might have all her younger sisters cut to save the cost of having several ceremonies.
She said she dreaded the pain, but looked forward to 'becoming a woman' - she wanted to be cut because it would make her more acceptable in the eyes of her peers and her community.
"If you are not cut, no one wants to talk to you; the girls and boys in school laugh at you because you are still a child," she told IRIN. "No man will want to marry or have sex with you if you are not cut."
But Toshi said that despite her own willingness to be cut, she did not support the practice of FGM, and insisted that she would not permit her own children to be circumcised.
"We are taught in our school health club that FGM is a harmful practice, and I wish the Maasai would stop forcing girls to do it," she said.
Several circumcised teenage girls in Ol Donyo Nyokie told IRIN they would never put their own children through FGM, having been educated about the dangers of the practice. They were adamant that they would not bow to the community's pressure to have their daughters cut, as many of their parents had.
Toshi and her friends, who were all circumcised in the same month, described how their wounds were coated with a paste made from cow dung and milk fat to stop the bleeding and accelerate healing; all maintained they had healed perfectly, and said they had never heard of any deaths or health complications arising from the operation.
However, the head teacher of the Ol Donyo Nyokie Primary School, Rebbeca Pateli, told IRIN there had been several incidents of injury and even death from FGM.
"You hear of girls who die, but there is never an admission that it was FGM-related. The practice is so hidden that it is hard to know how many, but they do get sick, and some die," she said.
Pateli, an ardent anti-FGM campaigner, painfully narrated how she was forced to circumcise her own daughter when the community threatened to ostracise her and her family. "I had hardened, but my girl was under so much pressure from her peers and elderly women that she eventually begged me to take her for the procedure," Pateli recounted.
The young men in the community, known as 'moran', or warriors, strongly believe that FGM is a useful practice that keeps women chaste. "I am married to a woman who is cut, and will be cutting my daughter when the time comes," Kapande ole Saitoti, an Ol Donyo Nyokie moran, told IRIN. "You cannot claim to be a Maasai man or woman if you are not circumcised."
In fact, the girls in the community reported that men were the biggest hindrance to the fight against FGM, because they continued to reject women who were uncut.
Change in Ol Donyo Nyokie is slow, but it is happening. More sanitary conditions during the procedure means fewer women suffer hygiene-related complications, and the use of a different blade for each girl has cut down the risk of passing on infections, such as HIV.
Samson Ntore, a community-based health worker with the African Medical Research Foundation, said most practitioners in Ol Donyo Nyokie had greatly reduced the severity of the cut, and merely made a symbolic incision rather than removing the entire clitoris. However, the women could not make this public knowledge, for fear of the repercussions if they were found to be shirking their duties.
The Ol Donyo Nyokie community is a society fighting to cling to their ways in the face of pressure to change from all sides. Most of them support education, and education tells them to abandon FGM. Today, the prevalence rate of FGM in this community is 100 percent. But the young girls of the community insist that their daughters will never have to undergo the painful procedure.
The Maasai and FGM
The Maasai are a nomadic community who move around several districts in central Kenya and northern Tanzania in search of pasture and water for their animals. Kenyan Maasai number about 377,000. They are a proud people who have steadfastly clung to their traditional values and customs, despite the fact that most other communities around them have been influenced in one way or another by modernisation and western culture.
Their lives revolve predominantly around their cattle, on which they depend for meat, milk and blood - the main components of their diet. As they have no need of the food grown by other communities, they have been less exposed to the influence of other cultures, and have therefore been able to maintain their traditions.
While admirable, the strength of Maasai culture makes it resistant to change, especially traditions as deeply ingrained as the practice of FGM. Like many other cultures, the Maasai have myths about their origins, and the origins of their customs and traditions.
Folklore explains the origin of female circumcision in the story of Naipei, a young girl who had intercourse with the enemy of her family, and whose punishment came in the form of circumcision, a decision her family took to prevent her from feeling the urges that had led her to commit the crime.
Since that day, in a bid to protect their honour and the honour of the Maasai society, all Maasai girls who reach adolescence have been circumcised. The aim of FGM is therefore to limit the sexual desire and promiscuity of girls.
The ceremony of FGM marks the coming of age of a girl; she sheds the last vestiges of childhood and joins the league of womankind. It is traditionally performed between the ages of 12 and 14 and is part of the traditional rites of passage for girls, in order for them to be considered adults in their community. A 2005 survey of the Maasai community in Ol Donyo Nyokie (population: 665), found that 100 percent of girls above the age of 15 had undergone FGM.
Following the ceremony there is a period of seclusion, during which girls are educated about their rights and duties as women - they learn how to prepare food, take care of a home and children, and how to look after their future husbands. Once this period is over, a girl is considered an honourable woman and is free to marry.
The importance of this practice among the Maasai is considerable. FGM is perceived as bringing honour to a girl and to her family; by making her eligible for marriage it raises the status of her family in the eyes of society. The Maasai have held to the custom in the face of widespread criticism by Kenyan society and the international community, and despite criminalisation of the practice by the Kenyan government in 2002.
Many educated Maasai men and women still favour the practice of FGM, not because they are uninformed about the risks involved, but for fear of the social repercussions, should they reject the custom. An uncircumcised woman remains a girl in the eyes of the community, however much education she may have, or whatever status she may attain in the outside world. For a woman who refuses to be circumcised, the risk of isolation is great, the chances of finding a Maasai spouse are reduced to almost nil, and her status in society will always be that of a child.
The Maasai FGM ceremony
The FGM ceremony takes place once a year and brings together all girls who come of age during that year. It is a large community event, marked by joyful revelry and feasting. A traditional circumciser, usually an elderly woman with great experience, performs the actual procedure. All the girls are circumcised on the same day and, until recent times, with the same instrument, usually a sharp knife known as an "ormurunya". A paste made from cow dung and milk fat is applied to stop bleeding. The end of the period of seclusion is also marked by celebrations officially welcoming the girls into womanhood.
The Maasai practice type-1 FGM, also known as a clitoridectomy, which involves the removal of the clitoral hood and all or part of the clitoris. Physical effects of the clitoridectomy include:
- reduced sexual desire
- bleeding, often severe enough to cause death
- infection, particularly due to poor sanitary conditions
- risk of HIV transmission due to sharing of knives
- complications during childbirth, often leading to stillbirths
Can the Maasai change their behaviour?
Despite their firm hold on their culture, certain aspects of FGM have begun to change. In the era of HIV/AIDS, the Maasai are aware of the risks involved in using the same knife for several procedures and, more often than not, today each individual is circumcised using a different blade. Studies by the non-governmental organisation, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake (MYWO), show that only 14 percent of circumcisers still use the same knife for several girls.
This change may be slight, but observers and campaigners consider that it nevertheless displays an openness among the Maasai to the idea that aspects of their traditional culture can be altered for the better.
One of the main approaches used by agencies trying to address the widespread practice of FGM is the introduction of alternative rites that are still acceptable and relevant to communities and allow girls to have a coming of age ceremony, but exclude cutting of the girl's genitalia. MYWO and the Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health spearheaded a series of alternative rites ceremonies across Kenya in 1996, and have continued to hold them annually since. In these alternative ceremonies, girls are still educated about their role as women in society, but receive more relevant instruction, such as lessons about reproductive health and the importance of formal education.
The alternative rites approach has had mixed results in Kenya, and among the Maasai has met with only limited success. Well-intentioned as the alternative rituals are, they do not provide the guarantee of low sexual desire that FGM does and, therefore, cannot satisfactorily replace the custom as far as the Maasai are concerned.
FGM is illegal in Kenya, but the law is rarely applied against practitioners or parents who make their children undergo it. The Maasai are a close-knit community who live largely by their own rules, and have resisted modernisation. It is this adherence to their own traditions that makes the eradication of FGM among the Maasai such an uphill task for those seeking to end the practice.
Nevertheless, the outside world is slowly influencing the Maasai way of life, with more girls and boys being enrolled in formal education institutions and learning about the risks associated with FGM. As this happens, it is hoped that the struggle to change harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, will become easier.
The eradication of FGM brings with it the consequence of forever altering the traditions of what is one of the few remaining authentic African societies. The tenacious hold the Maasai have on their culture is unusual, and many feel it should be protected at all costs. The challenge anti-FGM campaigners face is how to change this one harmful aspect of Maasai tradition without tainting the authenticity, or undermining the richness, of their culture.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions