Making a Rite Right
Hitting the headlines in Kenya this year is the spike in the number of women and girls being forcibly ‘circumcised’.
Behind these headlines are the stories told to Loreto Sister Ephigenia Gachiri ibvm and her team as they work with local communities to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Recently, they learnt that over a two-month period, more than 30 married women in one Rift Valley village had involuntarily had their genitals cut and sewn up. They were not girls being ‘circumcised’ as part of a cultural rite of passage – they were teachers, parents, and even wives of chiefs.
Sr Ephigenia attributes the surge in FGM cases to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are a few reasons behind this” she says. “People are being driven by fear, social pressure and desire for power and control. Recently I learnt that some men, threatened by their own impotence due to excessive alcohol and drug use, have wanted to ensure their wives are as incapable as themselves.
“Then there are the communities that believe that men with uncircumcised wives should not become leaders, driving those with political aspirations to harm their wives. These beliefs are hidden and difficult to ascertain, but fear keeps them alive.
“Another main driver is economic hardship and uncertainty. Lockdowns have meant people can’t work or earn an income, so they look for alternatives. One of these is to cut the girl and then marry her off in trade for a dowry or to reduce the ‘burden’ of another mouth to feed.
“Adding to this, schools are also closed, which some parents take advantage of to cut their girls, while circumcisers are making a living out of the practice.”
Working to end FGM in Kenya since 1998, Sr Ephigenia knows the challenges and what’s needed to drive change in attitude and practice.
“I think the fact that I’m well educated, older, and from a community that practices FGM gives me credibility. When one talks to the elders politely and with respect for their beliefs, they will accept you. I don’t know how much being a Sister helps, but perhaps it helps to know that I have no personal benefits to gain from the work. It may also help sway those in the community who believe the practice has religious support.
“In my team, I have married men and women because FGM is connected to sex and marriage. The married people on my team talk from experience.”
I have male facilitators who have married women that have endured FGM. We respect our participants, and they are delighted when men speak with men, and the married women address married women. Remember, this is a very sensitive area to our people.
– Sr Ephigenia Gachiri ibvm –
In most societies where FGM is practised, it is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation. It is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl, preparing her for adulthood, and increasing marriageability.
When Sr Ephigenia was told by a community she was working with that they couldn’t stop the practice because their daughters couldn’t “grow like goats who just move from one stage of maturity to another with no initiation rite”, she rose to the challenge and worked with them to develop alternative rites of passage.
The parents said their children needed to be prepared to enter into adolescence. They believed that was the original aim of FGM rituals; FGM was a ritual within a rite, but it was only one aspect.
“Unfortunately, most of the traditional rituals have gone, and only FGM remains today. The cut has assumed a very big role, whereas originally it was only a ritual within the rite,” says Sr Ephigenia. “I already knew that no person can force another to change behaviour – people decide for themselves. But listening to their reasoning, explaining the short and long-term harm it causes, and providing alternatives can definitely help.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. it is classified into four major types:
The partial or total removal of the clitoral glans (the external and visible part of the clitoris, which is a sensitive part of the female genitals), and/or the prepuce/ clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoral glans).
The partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without removal of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
Also known as infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/clitoral hood and glans (Type I).
This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
Author: Hannah George
Feature Image: Sr Epighenia Gachiri IBVM running an education lesson in a village of the Diocese of Nakuru, Kenya, Africa.