Almost a decade has passed since Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) became illegal in Kenya, but young girls are still cut in the dead of night, far from the authorities’ control. However, when information about the harm from the practice reaches the most rural parts of the country, more and more women refuse, convinced that the next generation can be saved.
“My husband is rubbing and rubbing the area where my clitoris used to be. It hurts, but then at least I feel something,” says Purity Resiato Kayieni, 30.
The women around her start laughing, their faces flushing. Among the Maasai people, talking about sex is taboo.
The unusual meeting where Resiato talks about her experience of being cut as a young girl takes place in a village called Ngararambuni. The village, surrounded by spiky acacia to keep wild animals away, is located in Olgulului, “Maasai land”, in southern Kenya. Here, more than one in three women is cut.
Last June, the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, vowed to put a nationwide end to Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, by 2022. His statement was seen as groundbreaking. Even though the practice has been banned since 2011, Kenyatta’s statement represents the strongest condemnation of the practice to date at such a high political level.
In many villages, Ngararambuni among them, the practice stopped only recently. In others, girls are being cut in the middle of the night at an age younger than before to conceal it from the authorities.
Among the Maasai, FGM is a rite of passage to adulthood, to becoming a wife and mother. Afterwards, women no longer have to bow to the elderly, as children do, to be greeted with a hand on their head.
After the clitoris has been cut off with a razor blade, they are allowed to spend time with men. The cutting is thought to prevent them from becoming pregnant by men from other villages while their husbands head further out to herd their cows as drought conditions reduce grazing land.
Abigael Naishorua Letuati, 29, leads the conversation in Ngararambuni. She is the manager of a project that tries to establish an alternative rite of passage that includes the traditional dances and celebration but excludes any razor blades.
The project is a cooperation between the Swedish and Kenyan Pentecostal movements, financed by the Swedish aid agency Sida. This time of year, around December, is stressful for Letuati, Resiato and their colleagues; it is known as the “cutting season” since the girls are home from school for the holidays.
Letuati is Maasai and her parents were the first in their village to not circumcise their daughter. They sent her to boarding school instead, to protect her. Letuati describes her school days as full of hunger, punishment, and violence. When she visited her home village, she was told that she was dirty and a child.
“I felt abandoned by my parents. But today, I’m grateful. That wound can heal, but a lost part of your body, you will never get back.”
Resiato tries for a minute to handle the loss with humour as she asks for advice about where she can buy a new clitoris. She still remembers clearly when she lost it. She had spent that night with her grandmother, who sang to her. She remembers the lyrics: “Grandmother has a razor blade and you shall not run away, don’t disappoint your father.” Grandmother pinched her granddaughter’s arms and legs to prepare her for the pain waiting at the crack of dawn, and Resiato was told not to cry. Instead, she fainted.
Resiato bled heavily and was taken to a hospital, but no doctor was present. Afterwards, she was instructed to urinate with her legs close together so the urine could clean the wound. She jumps to show how painful urination was.
When she was married off, now a woman, the circumcision was considered an honour to her husband.
Circumcisers in Olgulului describe how some girls shake with fear. If girls try to resist, the circumcisers tie their legs apart, so as not to slip. Cutting a vein could kill them.
Naomi Kupere, the wife of the village elder of Noonchokuti, had a special way to tie the girls’ calves to their thighs and then their arms to their lower back. She tied one of her daughters up that same way.
“I have ruined marriages, I have ruined families,” she says, and admits that she has circumcised over a thousand girls. Today she refuses to cut.
When the project against FGM reached the village of Noonchokuti, Kupere first thought the talk of stopping the tradition came out of jealousy. For each girl she cut, she received money, cow fat and dried meat.
“But today I’m free. And I ask God for forgiveness.”
Kupere is not alone. Mary Sindiyio, a midwife in the village of Orkung’u, on the foothills of Kilimanjaro, changed her mind when she understood that many of the complications during and after childbirth are caused by the cutting.
Women in Maasai land used to be discouraged from eating too much during pregnancy because giving birth to a big baby could be life-threatening since circumcised women often endure severe forms of tearing.
To Sindiyio, it was normal for women to remain in bed for a long time after giving birth. She was impressed when she saw uncircumcised women walk just a day later. When she understood the connection, she stopped performing FGM.
“When my sons send me their daughters, I send them back,” she says.
To perform FGM in Kenya is punishable by law. This act with lifelong consequences, which in the worst cases can cause death, can be punished by up to six months in prison or a fine of 200,000 Kenyan shillings, (approximately $2,000).
At the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board, the government body established by President Kenyatta in 2014, CEO Bernadette Loloju, a Maasai herself, thinks penalties are futile.
“When I visit the villages ‘undercover’, the parents admit that they cut the girls during nighttime, ‘because the government is on our backs’. It is more efficient to get them on our side.” She also points out that no girl would dare testify against her father.
Despite the president’s engagement in ending the practice, Loloju was until recently the only employee at the anti-FGM board. In a country struggling with high debt and corruption, financial resources are limited.
But the women who travel from village to village to stop FGM remain optimistic. Letuati, Loloju, Resiato and others see their challenge as saving one generation.
Circumcised girls witness their younger sisters go through FGM and the tradition is taught practically. The practice goes from one generation to another, and if one generation can grow up without being cut, they will save the next.
Former circumciser Linti ene Sampue has been listening to Resiato’s speech about how her husband cannot give her pleasure.
Sampue wears a big necklace with pearls, a symbol of respect showing she has adult children. The necklace on her chest shifts as she pulls back her shoulders, showing how proud she used to be of being a circumciser.
But today, she looks regretfully at the younger women in front of her. “I cut the trees without knowing what the shade means to us.”