“We don’t have to marry circumcised girls”
By Judie Kaberia
As a young Maasai moran, Jeremiah Kutanya, had sworn never to marry a girl who is not circumcised. He was determined to continue nurturing cultural practices he learnt from his father and grandfather during his transition to manhood.
It was very important for him to marry a girl who had undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
“The work of a moran is to continue the traditions. We were trained on how to perpetuate what our fathers and our forefathers were doing. Marrying a girl who is circumcised was our tradition and we in Maasai stick to our practices. I did not want to violate our culture. That’s why I planned to marry a girl who is cut,” says the 26-year-old now a university graduate.
David Sayianka, a community elder spent most of his 63 years ensuring that no girl passed teenage without undergoing the cultural cut. “I was very passionate and I was among the top crusaders of FGM. I never missed any single celebration of girls cut. I attended parties to celebrate. I would never marry a woman who is not circumcised. I got a wife who is cut.”
Sayianka has four daughters. Two of them underwent the outlawed cut whereas the others were lucky to escape the knife of agony. Today, Kutanya’s and Sayianka’s thoughts on FGM have changed.
Thanks to the massive campaigns launched across the country [Kenya] to fight the dangerous cut. They now wander from corner to corner of the hot land of Magadi stopping those cutting girls and warning them of legal consequences should they make any attempts to cut girls. At the age of 26, Kutanya would have been a father of several children and husband to many wives.
But education has changed his perspective of life and culture. “I feel I am a young man. I don’t have to marry at this age. I will marry when I am ready. I will marry a girl who is not cut,” Kutanya explains. His turning point was on the day he saw a young Maasai mother die while giving birth. “During trainings by a NGO in Kenya, I heard that FGM can cause death. But I still didn’t believe that. It was until I witnessed such a case. There was a mother who was being rushed to hospital and because of obstruction of labour, the woman passed away. That’s when I believed that seriously this practice can kill. It really shocked me and it made me think of campaigning against it,” he recalled during an interview with Capital FM News. Kutanya is now the Executive Director of Enlighters Youth Institute in Magadi which comprises of Maasai morans committed to standing up against the girl cut.
Sayianka as well attended a series of FGM sensitisation workshops but he shrugged them off as lame excuses meant to frustrate the Maasai culture. “I kept on wondering what their interest was on stopping our girls from getting the cut. They kept on saying it was bad, but I didn’t see it.” It was only after watching a video demonstrating the gruesome process of removing the female genitalia from young girls that Sayianka vowed to start protecting girls. “I couldn’t watch the entire video. I shut my eyes maybe half of the five minutes long video. It was painful to see the small girls screaming and blood oozing out, I almost cried as I watched the video,” Sayianka recalled.
“I didn’t think it was that awful. I thought it was only a small cut.” He as well learnt that FGM leads to birth complications, can cause tumors in the genitalia and even lead to death due to over bleeding. “Girls over bleed, they get wounds and tumors. We are now telling people the dangers of cutting girls. It is a dangerous taboo. Many people don’t know or don’t want to accept that our taboo is bad. So we really have to show them what we saw on that video.”
Oldoinyo-Nyokie Assistant Chief Joseph Kayioni explains that it is not easy for Maasai men to stand up against a culture that is still widely viewed as important in transition of girls to women or making of wives. They are first viewed as betrayers of dreams of their fathers and forefathers. Despite the resistance, Kayioni says having men taking the lead in the war against FGM is realising results. He says the number of girls undergoing the cut in Magadi has declined same way the number of girls dropping out of school has reduced. The number of girls joining school has also increased compared to previous years when FGM was rampant. “It’s not easy to tell Maasais not to cut their girls. But it doesn’t matter how long it will take but we can see many people can hear what we are saying and have stopped cutting their girls,” the Chief explained.
According to the NGO Amref Health Africa, in Kenya, the ratio of girls to boys in Oldonyo-Nyokie Primary School who sat for the 2015 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education was almost equal.
There were 21 girls and 25 boys. Due to interventions of subjecting girls to the Alternative Rite of Passage, the number of girls staying in school has increased compared to previous years.
In the year 2008, there were only two girls in a class of 16 pupils. “If we fight FGM, we will have our girls succeed in school and in life. But if we allow it to continue, our young girls will get married when they are only adolescents,” Kayioni advised.
When Patrick Sayianka moved to the Oldonyo-Nyokie Primary School in Magadi, he didn’t know his job as a head teacher would be so intricate. He was astonished to see girls enroll in big numbers in lower classes but disappear as they got closer to standard eight. By the time they sat for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination, Sayianka was thunderstruck. As mentioned before, there were only 2 girls in a class of 16 candidates in the year 2008. This is the time he knew his role has to be more than managing the school calendar and teaching. He had to bring back the girls to school.
“The girls were disappearing in upper classes. I knew it was of FGM and the girls were being married,” he recalled to Capital FM News. “I realised myself giving in because I saw some very young girls of even 12 years suffering. I felt a lot of pain because I am also a father of a daughter and I felt if I let these ones go just because they are not mine, what about tomorrow, what about my girl – supposing she gets a similar problem, will I be able to cry,” he worried. Like a father determined to save dozens of his daughters from a dangerous cultural practice, Sayinka put his foot down and vowed to bring back every girl who had dropped out of his school. He was prepared to dialogue with their parents and even pick up a legal battle for the sake of his students.
“I have to ensure girls complete standard eight. Those who get married – we have to move in and rescue them, we have to report to the chief. Those who get pregnant we follow them up and once they give birth we bring them back to school because if we let her go, she will definitely not come back, she will be married off.”
A man so passionately dedicated to save the girls has looked for all possible ways of ensuring girls get education. He pushed for the construction of a dormitory to ensure girls at risk of FGM stay in school. Subsequently, he realised those girls needed to be empowered with skills that can help them protect themselves from a community deeply entrenched in a culture of FGM. “Before they go home we talk with the girls those who have undergone and those who have not. We talk to them in the dormitory and we encourage them to live together and ensure they are not frustrated.”
“We bring resource persons from the dispensaries, from Amref Health Africa and role models from within the community especially those at the university level.” Sayinka has left open channels of communication to ensure girls always get help whenever they need. “I had one of my students who had completed standard eight last year. Her father wanted to force her to be circumcised. She wrote a letter to me. Then I called the parents and they admitted it was their wish that the girl could undergo FGM. We discussed and agreed that they don’t cut the girl. I informed them that the law is there if they force her. They agreed and the girl was not cut,” Sayinka recalls.
He makes use of every single opportunity within the community to demonstrate to them that education is important and that FGM has no value. “Those holding ceremonies to celebrate their degrees within the community, we encourage our girls to go there. We use the ceremonies to educate our girls that FGM is not good.” He has also incorporated the Alternative Rite of Passage where girls experience all elements of a FGM celebration but do not undergo the cut. Though he has managed to save many girls from FGM, it has not been a bed of roses. He has faced rejection from parents especially those he threatened when they made attempts to marry off their girls or get them cut. “It requires a lot of commitment and it requires a big heart. Because it is not easy, we get a lot enmity from the parents especially if the parent is trying to marry off the girl.”
Last year out of the 161 girls in the school, about 50 of them regrettably underwent the agonising cut during the December holidays. He says pressure from parents and peers put girls at risk of FGM. “We teach these girls they accept they will not undergo the cut, but the challenge is the pressure from the parents. Nowadays because the parents know it is wrong they know there are people watching so they take them far from this place. Even up to Tanzania or somewhere we cannot see. Those who have undergone push them, they frustrate them, and they give them some funny names. They tell them ‘you are now a big girl but you look like a child’. Some of them give in and take the cut,” he regrets. And like the quote goes, ‘the grass is greener where you water it’, Oldonyo-Nyokie Primary School this year has 47 standard eight candidates. The price of his work is a class with 30 girls and only 17 boys.