Change comes from within: what do men think?

By Vendelin T. Simon, Christina Mbise, Moses Gasana

Female genital mutilation is a violation of human rights. However, three million – mostly African – girls a year still run the risk of being circumcised. Ngo’s like Amref Flying Doctors want to reverse that trend by organising alternative rites of passage (ARP). But what do men think of that?

Yohana Samwel’s story

Born and living in Mkindi Ward, Yohana Samwel (51 years) is a chairperson of the Laigwenans (Maasai traditional leaders) of two districts in Tanzania, Kilindi and Handeni. By the virtue of his position he enjoys being point of contact for any interventions targeting his people in his community. Having born and lived in the same community, Samwel is rich of values and traditions of Maasai in the area. He has two wives and three children.

Positive impact

For Laigwenan, the ARP project offered an opportunity to learn about issues surrounding Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The Laigwenan is convinced that most of the issues addressed by the project have and will continue to impact his community positively. Sharing what was done and its impact he says: “Amref has brought us education against early marriage, as of now girls are getting married at 22, 24, 25 years when they are matured to know who men are. This is different from previous when girls would get married at 15 and 16 years. The awareness to take girls to school has been received positively and initiation ceremonies are done during holidays and do not involve cutting.”

A big say

Participation of traditional leaders was crucial since the project was addressing practices which are deeply rooted in the culture hence devising relevant strategies. This approach impressed the Laigwenan and this is what he says: “They have worked with the community including the cultural leaders who have a big say. The Maasai community values, respects and listens to the cultural leaders a lot. It was good when they started with us first because if they went into the community straight away people would refuse because this tradition has been there for years and years and we are all witnesses.”

Exchange visits

By empowering and collaborating with cultural leaders it resulted to cascaded efforts ithe course of promoting alternative rites of passage as opposed to FGC which has proven to have health, physical and psychological effects to girls and women. Sharing the experience, Laigwenan says: “Amref took us to Kenya to exchange views and experiences with our fellow Maasai leaders, we agreed that it should not be Amref but it is us the Maasai people to fight against the FGC”.

Laigwenan shares what has helped to accelerate the changes as he says: “Amref did not change our traditions but rather continue with ceremonies without cutting the female organ. You know what, as Maasai we strongly believe in our traditions, we could have refused even if they came with police officers, and even if we are to be put in jail. If we value our traditions, we care less about that but through this project we have understood the dangers, we have collaborated and we would not want our girls to suffer. Imagine even the Morans are now saying that they want a woman who has not been circumcised and they are happy about it. Because we asked them, how come you marry white women (wazungu) who are not circumcised and you want the Maasai girls to be circumcised? So our participation and the exposure to the FGC knowledge have really helped.”

Dangers of FGC

Playing their role in the fight against FGC the Laigwenan has been in the forefront to make sure the community is made aware of the dangers of FGC and alternatives. He says: “I educate the community during gatherings and they are now opting for the alternative initiation practices by just doing the ceremony without cutting. I lead the processions together with other Laigwenans during initiation ceremonies and we ensure the girls are safe. We insist to let girls go to school and arrange for the ceremony when they are on leave.”

Previous measures

Speaking of previous measures to ban FGC before the project, Laigwenan says that “the community was forced to stop FGC and severe punishments were introduced. As a result, community reacted by cutting female children”. Laigwenan continues: “People had to resort to circumcision at young age because of the use of force towards ending female circumcision. Now after educationing the community through this project and by learning from the communities which have stopped and the fact that the cultural leaders are supporting to stop girl circumcision even those who are difficult have changed.”

Trust in the leaders

The Laigwenan suggests that for the period that he has been leading the two districts of Kilindi and Handeni, the Kilindi district requires more efforts due to deeply rooted traditions. A lot has been done and a lot of changes have been realized. Therefore the Laigwenan calls for combined efforts especially by cultural leaders and community leaders as they are more close to the people. He says: “My plead to the communities that practice FGC is that this is not a good practice. We should stop it. As cultural leaders, when we host big community meetings, we should educate our people to stop this and since they have trust on us they will change.”

Julias’ story

Julias is a 26 years old youth who lives in Elerai village, Kibirashi ward. He is a pastoralist and also farming but not to a larger extent. Julius is still single but he has an Italian girlfriend whom he never met but only communicates by chatting and sending pictures through WhatsApp. He does not have a Maasai girlfriend either. He considers himself to be young but he plans to get married by 2017.

Impossible to change

Julius was involved in the project, and he explained it as “mradi wa tohara mbadala” or a project that promotes alternative rites of passage. Julius had an interesting story to tell on the first encounter with the project three years ago and how things improved simply by listening and working more closely with indigenous people. He says: “They came with a slogan of stopping girls circumcision, a public meeting was organized by the ward authority and it was on this meeting that Amref team was introduced to us. After that introduction, we were not pleased and didn’t like the whole idea of promoting practices that go against our tradition. First they came to promote something that is impossible to change, it simply wasn’t possible to talk about stopping FGC.”

Massive opposition

“When they realized there was massive opposition about banning FGC in the public meeting, they changed the approach. They started organizing seminars, meetings, trainings with some groups. They talked to some of us and advised them on best approach to introduce the idea to the community. We advised them that they should organize their campaigns and activities according to age groups. Youth, elderly female and male, warriors and girls cannot be mixed among Maasai community. They gave more education and they identified few of us who were willing to help the project initiatives and slowly, slowly the number of Morans who accepted the project, increased.”

Taboo and shame

After singing with the rhythm of the traditional structures, the Morans and other groups started understand and support the idea of stopping FGC and promote alternative rites of passage. After gaining the knowledge, Julius compares what they believed and embraced with simple facts. He says: “It was a taboo and shame to marry a girl who is not cut, it was an embarrassment to the family and the clan. We realized Amref was actually coming to improve and make our tradition friendly to both males and females. Girls were suffering by embracing a painful cultural practice. The family suffers silently. They mentioned things that we have already experienced but we were born into a community that does it and we had to continue doing it. They mentioned things like death, excessive bleeding, difficult and risks of death during delivery. We took it as our own agenda. So what used to be a shameful issue in public became a public issue.”

New relationships

Coupled with the project awareness and the recent in social dynamics among communities including the Maasai community, a number of changes are taking place among men in favor of stopping FGC and promoting alternative rites of passage. Julius shares this experience by saying: “The Morans have changed a lot. We have new relationships; we are dating women from other groups that do not practice female cutting. We talk among about the difference between women are who are cut and those who are no not. There aren’t big differences. The only difference is that a woman who is cut has less sexual appetite and feeling than the one who is cut. The experience of dating girls who are not cut has made many morans want to date women who are not cut.”

Feast as usual

Among the positive approaches which make Julius happy, is the fact that they are able to continue with safe cultural practices by having the initiation ceremony without causing pain to the girls. This is what he says: “Therefore, what happens with new initiation rituals is imitation. Its like a drama, the feast is still organized and the second day a girl is caught, carried and taken in front of the little hut, next to the door and ngariba comes with a razor, holds it into girls genitals without cutting, it’s a symbol. They just touch the razor at girls’ genitals. Then milk is poured and announces that ‘tayari’ (it’s done). The girl is then taken inside, she will stay until all guests have left and a day after she continues with her work. This has changed a lot, previously the girl would stay inside for a month nursing wounds. So we are happy that an alternative approach was introduced and accepted, we were not happy that we were like slaves of our culture. No one wants to see his sister suffer but there was no way out. Now! Feast as usual, we eat, we drink, we sing, we slaughter cows, we dance, friends and neighbors and relatives all come.”