Female Genital Cutting (FGC) Abandonment
S.A.F.E.’s Female Genital Cutting (FGC) programme, like all S.A.F.E. programmes, is a community led and designed intervention created by S.A.F.E.’s all Maasai team, SAFE Maa. After designing a successful five-year HIV intervention which used traditional Maasai song and story to educate about the virus, the female Project Manager, Sarah Tenoi, requested that the same methodology be used to talk about the much more difficult subject of FGC. When the project began in 2010, 99% of girls in this community underwent type two circumcision.
SAFE Maa began the process of educating the community about FGC through traditional Maasai song and story, thereby harnessing the culture, and presenting the debate for abandonment in a respectful, culturally appropriate and non-judgmental way. The performance consisted of two groups of men and women singing two competing songs. One was in favour of FGC and the other was against. As an audience member, it meant that whatever your opinion was, it was represented on stage. At the end of the performance the message was –“let’s just talk about it”. The performance allowed a previously taboo issue to be brought out into the open, and discussed for the first time amongst different sections of the community.
These performances were followed up with workshops, where the community had space to discuss the issues raised during the performances. It quickly became apparent that the fear of a loss of culture was the main concern about FGC abandonment. After understanding the harmful effects, community members said that they would be willing to abandon FGC, but needed something to replace it, so that the culture could be maintained.
SAFE Maa engaged the community circumcisers, also known as the Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) in the creation of an Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP). In Loita culture, cutting cleanses a girl to make her eligible for marriage and child birth. Uncut girls are considered ‘dirty’ because they have not been through this ritual. In Maasai culture, cows are sacred, and cow’s milk also has cleansing properties, therefore, the TBAs suggested that the pouring of cow’s milk on a girl can replace cutting in the new ARP. This ceremony is known as the Loita Rite of Passage (LRP) giving community and cultural ownership.
When the LRP had been created, SAFE Maa took it back to the community. Through their one on one interventions and workshops, they explained the LRP and how it was a way of protecting the culture, as well as the rights and health of girls and women. They were supported by the TBAs who also promoted it through their work with women in the community.
Year on year, the LRP grew in popularity, and families slowly began to adopt it. In 2015, 30% of girls were not being cut and most of these girls were graduating through the LRP. Initially families who adopted the LRP were reluctant to be open about their decision, and would keep the choice of ceremony secret. But gradually, as the practice became more widely known, a few prominent families went public. Most of the 70% that were unwilling to give up cutting altogether had by this time migrated to type one circumcision, or a small symbolic cut. It is this group for whom the LRP is designed to help in the final move to total abandonment.
However, change has not been linear. External factors, outside of SAFE Maa’s control slowed the adoption of the LRP. A police crackdown at the end of 2017 made families start to cut in secret due to fear of arrest, meaning that girls were being cut at night without ceremony or celebration. For the first time people were too scared to talk about which rite of passage their daughter underwent.
This development led SAFE Maa to engage the cultural leadership for a Declaration of Abandonment. SAFE Maa presented the Cultural Leadership with the argument that the LRP was the only way forward that allowed the community to practice their culture within the law, and free of cutting. The other secret way was a total loss of culture, and a continuation of a harmful practice for girls. The Cultural Leaders agreed to not only lead the community in a Declaration of Abandonment, but also to bless the LRP – the new culturally approved graduation ceremony for girls.
Since the declaration of abandonment and the blessing of the LRP, the team have seen a significant increase in the social status of uncut women, and other women having the courage to reveal their secret uncut status. For the first time, it is now common to see cut women socialising with uncut women. Also, some families who had been performing the LRP in secret, are having public celebrations. The Declaration also gave the Cultural Leaders a key role in FGC abandonment, allowing them to promote the culture within the campaign.
A declaration from the leadership (and their acceptance and blessing of the LRP) while a critical step in SAFE Maa’s abandonment campaign, is not the last step towards the end of FGC within the community. It needs to be understood and embraced by the whole community. SAFE Maa are now working in partnership with the TBAs and Cultural Leaders to sensitise the community on the Declaration of Abandonment and the blessing of the LRP. They are gathering people together to discuss the event, ask questions and fully understand why the cultural leaders made this momentous decision.
Replication in Samburu
In 2015, S.A.F.E.’s FGC programme was replicated in Samburu County, northern Kenya by S.A.F.E.’s new team, SAFE Samburu. The team and project replication was created by local community activists were who inspired by SAFE Maa’s culturally appropriate intervention. Following training by the Maa team, SAFE Samburu created their own performances and series of workshops to open the conversation around FGC in their own community.
When they began their work, 99% of girls in the Westgate Conservancy were undergoing traditional, type 2 circumcision and the topic was taboo. In the short time since the intervention began, the Samburu team have made considerable progress. Support for FGC is decreasing, and the community members are calling for the leadership to advise them on the way forward. Individual families have openly stopped cutting, others are performing all of the rituals apart from cutting, but keeping it a secret. Of those who are still cutting, it is believed that most have moved to the smaller symbolic cut, likened to type 1 circumcision. Prominent members of the community have joined the SAFE Samburu volunteer network and are actively advocating for change at a village level.
Although there is a clear appetite for abandonment, community members are unwilling to discuss alternatives to cutting without the permission and guidance of their leaders. The community TBAs, who had been so influential in Loita, felt uneasy discussing what cultural rite could be adopted to replace cutting. In response to this community feedback, SAFE Samburu approached the leadership in the Westgate Conservancy, to engage them in their campaign and secure their support. The leadership were fully supportive; they were concerned about the increasing number of parents who were being arrested for cutting their daughters and recognised the threat that secret cutting posed both to the community, and their culture.
The SAFE Samburu team are now expanding their campaign to reach other influential regions within Samburu County, using cultural song and story to educate community members and engage the leaders. SAFE Samburu’s goal is to bring all of the Samburu County leaders together to create a unified, culturally accepted, way forward.
Key Project Principles
A culturally sensitive, respectful and non-judgmental intervention has enabled community members to openly discuss their fears around FGC abandonment, allowing the teams to be flexible and adapt their programming to reflect this feedback.
The use of local culture to create performances that bring a taboo and complex issue into public discourse.
Community sensitisation on the effects of FGM/C, and the need for an alternative to cutting, allows community members to understand why FGC is illegal, and why there are global calls for it to end.
Creation of a unique alternative to cutting, in partnership with key community stakeholders that meets the same cultural and social standards, gives the team the ability to offer a solution which both protects the culture and protects girls. Contributing to a sustained move away from cutting, for those who choose it.
Public support of influential leaders and groups for the alternate rite, increasing its prominence within the community, reducing the fear that community members have of social exclusion if they adopt the new right.
A longitudinal approach that is prepared to support the community through such a profound alteration in a critical part of their culture, for as long as necessary.
Loita Hills Declaration of Abandonment – 6th February 2019 – Click here for more info.