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Bringing change to Kenya: Rising Up to the Harmful Practices of Female Genital Mutilation

A rusty knife

Not to get too graphic or inappropriate, but, that is what is used, or sometimes it is a dirty razor.

Female Genital Mutilation (though it has come in many forms in many different cultures) has come up upon 3 million girls a year and always has had the same outcome. The ritual is just as destructive on a young girls’ future as it is on her most intimate body parts.

FGM, also called Female Circumcision, is the removal of the clitoris and labia with an unsterilized cutting object, with no anesthesia, and a high risk of infection and death. Girls that survive this ceremony often have chronic urinary tract infections, other infections, cysts, infertility and life-threatening complications in childbirth.

But, the cost of losing tradition, and the cost of losing the bride-price (usually cattle given from the highest bidder of a much older village man) proves to be too much for many families, villages, cultures to change this harmful practice. So, even though it is almost universally illegal now, it continues. However – even in the darkest of places and in the most oppressive circumstances – sometimes a voice can change things, even if it is a girls’.

Kakenya Ntaiya was a girl like that. Struggling in poverty and knowing she was already engaged at the age of 5, she was determined to excel at school. Kakenya is part of the Masaii tribe in Kenya, which uses FGM as a passage of a girl into adulthood. More than 90% of the Masaii girls are circumcised. After the ceremony, the girl (age 10-14) is offered into marriage: into a life of tending the fields, the flocks, and having children, but no longer attending school. Economic decline has decreased the age even lower to 8-12.

Seeing no way out of the ritual at the time, but desperate to go to school, Kakenya Ntaiya made a deal with her father. Her father agreed that she could remain in school if she underwent the extremely painful ceremony at age 14. So, a group of women gathered with a rusty knife leaving only the sorrow and pain of a girl in a dark cow pen. But, even in her loss, Kakenya Ntaiya had made the deal – her only ray of hope at the time. So, instead of entering marriage, she went to school… and she went to more school… and more school. This education came with much convincing of the Masaii elders, but in her promising to come back and help her village, they agreed. Now with a Ph. D. she has returned to the region and built a school.

Kakenya Ntaiya’s school is the area’s first and only primary school for just girls. The school relies on donors so that girls in poverty will not have to leave school to enter child marriage. At the school, the girls get individual attention, with extra focus on English and math. They are also educated on sex, HIV and their personal rights including FGM. It is here, they learn what Kakenya Ntaiya wasn’t taught – that it is illegal in Kenya to have FGM performed on them and that they don’t have to bargain their body for education – or any other reason. It is a school where they are kept safe – as it serves also as a boarding school for girls who would be at risk from attack from traveling far. Even more, in this environment they will be empowered to lead, speak up, dream and multiply their efforts. Where normally only 11% of Maasai girls in Kenya even finish primary school, Kakenya Ntaiya is seeing those statistics change before her very eyes with each girl that is in her classrooms. Each girl is a girl who will not have Female Circumcision performed on them, who have not been married off as children, and who are still learning, not just in education, but in how to engage their own culture to make change.

The work is still long and hard ahead, as undercover, illegal FGM is still occurring and often at earlier ages before authorities can suspect it. It is hard laborious work, not as much building brick by brick of more schools, but building brick by brick of thoughts and trust into the minds and hearts of the Masaii leaders and other leaders around the world that perform such practices.

That knife – that old, dirty knife – so much pain caused by both rusty instruments and diseased thoughts. We have been given new instruments such as Channels of Hope to cut to the heart of both men and women about gender equality to heal and not to harm. Education initiatives about health and culture bring all of these practices out of sorrow and into restoration.

There are still a lot of knives out there. Awful ones, in the darkness. But, sometimes a voice can change things, like Kakenya Ntaiya’s, even if it is a girls’. What about a whole lot of women? What could we change?

by Anna Goodworth, WOV Hartford, CT

This post has one comment

  1. Ndinda says:

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring story. As a Kenyan young woman living in the U.S. I am encouraged that there are courageous individuals who are willing to truly take a stand and fight for women’s rights! Every day, I am realizing just how true Margaret Mead’s quote is: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

    Kakenya Ntaiya thank you for giving me such amazing footsteps to follow in as I plan to go back to Kenya and continue advocating for women’s rights through health and addressing gender-based violence. You are truly a hero and may God continue to bless you.

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