Rites and Razor Blades Changing Minds About Female Circumcision in Kenya

Kenya banned female genital mutilation years ago, but the bloody practice lives on in many rural communities. One NGO is going village to village to sell tribal elders on alternative traditions. And it's working.
A Visual Story from Kenya, by Nora Belghaus und Fabian Franke

It all starts with a big metal bowl full of water. The night before the ceremony, the girl's mother places the bowl on the roof of their hut. Some put an axe in it, which allegedly helps to cool the water more during the night. At dawn, the mother wakes her daughter.

Then, in the entrance to their hut, the daughter is laid down on a piece of cowhide, according to women who have experienced the ritual. The girl must undress before she is then washed with the cold water to numb her body.

Two women grab the girl's legs while a third holds her upper body from behind. A fourth woman then sets to work with the razor blade, cutting away the girl's clitoris and, in many cases, also the inner and outer labia. Sometimes the vagina is sewn shut. The cuts rob the girl of her childhood -- and her dignity. Oftentimes women who have undergone such procedures are unable to bear children or they cannot urinate or have sex without pain. And sometimes, in the most extreme cases, the metal bowl on the roof marks the end of a human life.

A Bloody Tradition

Female genital mutilation has been banned in Kenya since 2011. Yet women continue to be circumcised -- and not only in Kenya. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 200 million girls and women around the world have been genitally mutilated, with a further 3 million at risk of being subjected to the practice each year.

Initiation rites exist all over the world. They represent the transition from childhood to adulthood and are often bloody and steeped in centuries of tradition. But now, more and more people are rebelling against such traditions.

The law that has banned genital mutilation in Kenya since 2011 is one of the strictest in East Africa, carrying a penalty of at least three years in prison and a fine of $2,000 (1,854 euros) for anyone who performs a circumcision. Nevertheless, the tradition continues, especially in remote, rural areas where the authorities are often unable to investigate due to a lack of resources -- if they hear about the cases at all. Since the law came into existence, many circumcisions are now carried out in secret.

Taking a trip to these far-flung regions makes one thing clear: The battle against genital mutilation may be a political one, but it's being fought in private. It pits the community leader, who is supposed to enforce the ban, against the circumciser, who earns money from violating it. It pits grandmothers against granddaughters. Teachers against parents.

A Conflict of Interests

Kilonito, located in Kajiado County in southern Kenya, is a good place to start on the search for answers as to why female genital mutilation still persists. The region is sparsely populated, with huts scattered among occasional low trees. The homes have round, mud walls and fences made of thorny bushes. Between them are long stretches of sand through which cattle herders drive their animals.

Of the Massai who live in this region, 78 percent of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been circumcised, according to the latest public health survey conducted in 2014. In Kenya overall, 21 percent of respondents said they had been genitally mutilated. The ban had gone into effect three years before the survey was taken.

Stephen Likama is the community leader here in Kilonito, making it his job to enforce the laws of the state. But Likama is also a Massai, and he holds elder status in his community. This makes him a protector of cultural heritage, which for centuries has included the circumcision of girls.

What, then, is more important? And whose decision is it to make, way out here, far from the centers of politics? Is it Likama, the elder of the Massai? Or is it Likama, the guardian of the rule of law? His dual roles can cause conflicts. In order to do right by his political office, he's dependent on the acceptance of his people -- people like Nailepu Pusaren, who spent 10 years working as a circumciser. She was paid to do her job, but there was more to it than that. Circumcisers are seen as guardians of tradition -- and are therefore held in high esteem in Massai communities. After all, legend has it that circumcision once served to protect the community. 

In places where the ban on female circumcision is not observed, the consequences for women can be severe. Many suffer their entire lives from genital fistulas, inflammation, pain during urination and sex or problems during childbirth. Many of them are traumatized and carry with them memories of the pain the blade caused well into adulthood.

And then there are the social consequences. Often the girls are married after being circumcised and soon get pregnant. In 2015, one in five Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 19 were already mothers or were pregnant, according to the World Bank. Many of them must drop out of school after giving birth and are dependent on their husbands -- and thus fall into a cycle of poverty.

For many Massai, however, an end to circumcision would mean the loss of their cultural identity. Is there any way out?

Breaking With Tradition

Abigail Nosim Tepela is 19 years old. For her, a young Kenyan woman, things like traditions and equal opportunities, rites and equal rights for girls and women, are not mutually exclusive. She belongs to the generation of young Massai women who could bring about change. Tepela is proud to be Massai, she says. But she also views circumcision as a retrogressive, inhuman practice.

Tepela was lucky. No one filled a metal bowl with water and placed it on a roof for her. There was no cowhide at dawn. Her village community broke with Massai tradition and stopped circumcising its girls. Instead, the girls' alternative rite of passage includes candlelight, dancing and a beauty pageant. Could this be the solution? Is this the key to replacing a centuries-old tradition?

The idea behind the new initiation rites is simple: There is still a ceremony to mark girls' passage into womanhood, it just doesn't involve cutting them. "Don't leave behind a vacuum," is how one employee of the NGO Amref Health Africa puts it. The ceremony should be a celebration, it should be pompous, and it should put the girls first. Amref, one of the largest NGOs in Africa, has spent the past 10 years promoting this approach, ever since members of the organization visited a Samburu community in northern Kenya in 2009. Non-violent rites had been in place there for quite some time and Amref adopted the concept.

But the road to convincing others to adopt an alternative rite is long and it can take years to convince a community, Amref employees say. Community leader Stephen Likama had to first show the elders of Kilonito videos of a circumcision. Men are generally not present at their daughters' circumcision ceremonies and they often don't know exactly what happens. Only after many rounds of talks did they agree: Genital mutilation should end.

When the alternative rites begin, Amref invites the children to workshops -- first the boys, then the girls. In Kilonito, some have to walk for hours through the steppe while others are collected by bus. Only sandy paths lead to the flat school building, with the nearest paved road to the next larger town almost two hours away by car. In the classroom, the children learn about the female body, sexuality and childbirth. How does it work?

Grace Majiakusi, herself a Massai, and Mwololo Kennedy Mutuku, from a neighboring community, help to organize the workshops and the alternative rites. They're from here, which is vital, because out in the villages, Mutuku says, there are always reservations and mistrust toward the staff from the capital Nairobi. The children, too, are more likely to be open-minded if the workshops are initially held in their native language, and not in the national languages of Swahili or English.

Celebrating Life

The real highlight -- the ceremony -- comes on the evening of the fourth day, once the workshops are complete. The girls prepare for their big moment all day. They dance with the mothers and grandmothers, are given jewelry and tie white ribbons around their foreheads on which Amref staff have written things like, "NO FGM" or "No child marriage."

Then, come nightfall, the ceremony begins with the beauty pageant.

Seventy-eight girls took part in the alternative rite in the summer of 2019. Since Amref started the program in 2009, more than 16,000 girls in Kenya and Tanzania have participated, according to the organization's own count, and other organizations have similar programs. They all put their hopes in young women like Abigail Nosim Tepela.

In the summer of 2018, she was named "Miss ARP Kilonito 2018." Since then, as an uncircumcised woman, she has visited other Massai communities to try and persuade them to abandon the tradition. She talks to the mothers and grandmothers, and to the girls themselves. As an anti-circumcision ambassador, she is a role model for younger girls. Tepela has just finished school and wants to go on to study economics and statistics.

As a result of her efforts and those of many others, Kenya now has many communities like Kilonito that rely on alternative rites and respect the law. But will this be enough to change an entire country's thinking?


So läuft die alternative Zeremonie ab


Fabian Franke

Conservative traditionalists are finding ways around the ban. Now circumcision often takes place under more hygienic conditions, in hospitals or in local medical practices, to minimize the acute health risk. Yet long-term psychological and physical consequences remain. Some families travel to neighboring countries where members of the same ethnic group live and where law enforcement is patchier and laws more lax. NGOs call this trend "cross-border FGM." The Tanzanian border, for instance, is only a day's march away from the Massai in southern Kenya.

Kenya, though, has forged ahead and set itself an ambitious goal: In November, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced his intention to reduce the number of genital mutilations to zero by 2022. That would put Kenya eight years ahead of the UN target. But is the goal just lip service? Even Kenyatta knows the fight against razor blades isn't over yet. But with every girl who is not circumcised, with every community that renounces mutilation and embraces alternatives ceremonies -- Kenya moves a bit closer to its objective.

The Team

Reporters, Camera, Production: Nora Belghaus and Fabian Franke

Translation: Elias Laizer, Marius Münstermann, Chris Cottrell, Charles Hawley

Editing: Lena Greiner, Jens Radü

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Travel and reporting expenses were covered by a grant from the German Foundation for World Population.

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