Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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The Secret World of Female Circumcision

NAIROBI – As a child in rural Kenya, I was a secret admirer of female genital mutilation. I was swayed by talk of friends and elders about how once a girl undergoes “the cut,” she gains respect and grown men consider her suitable for marriage. Perhaps these were the reasons why, as a girl of 13, I longed to be “circumcised” and become a “real woman.”

My mother opposed the practice, however, because she was (and remains) a Christian and wanted me to become educated and to escape the fate of many girls in my community who are married off to older men and then lose their autonomy. I tried to persuade my mother to permit my circumcision, but she refused.

My mother’s decision angered me. In frustration, I spoke with a few other schoolgirls. Each of them gave a different version of the process, but they held a common view: circumcision is intensely painful, and I must be prepared for much bleeding. And yet the friends to whom I spoke encouraged me to get circumcised.

So one August, during my school holidays, I decided to learn more about female genital circumcision. I decided to witness a girl undergoing the practice, and perhaps see her cry and bleed. If possible, I would talk to her later in order to gain a clearer picture of her experience.

I went ahead with my plan and witnessed a girl being circumcised. The experience changed my life, but not in the way I expected. Before the operation, traditional heroic songs were sung, while a few older women sharpened their knives, preparing for the task ahead. They also prepared special herbs for use as disinfectants. I paid little attention to their preparations, actually. My eyes were fixed on Lillian, a girlfriend who was waiting to be cut.

When the women began their work, Lillian’s expression turned from giddy anticipation to fear and then panic. I thought she might change her mind and run for her life.

I was mistaken. She sat on a traditional stool and spread her legs wide apart. An old woman bent over her, knife in hand. I looked away and heard a sharp scream. The scream was swallowed by cheers from scores of women watching Lillian with me. They celebrated Lillian’s mutilation, while I mourned her loss.

In my mind, Lillian was experiencing the worst moment of her life. In an instant, my view of female circumcision changed forever. While the women around me kept cheering, I resolved that from then on I would resist the practice with all my might.

Because of my mother’s support, and my own determination, I succeeded in keeping my body intact. I went on to finish high school and then study journalism in a big city far from home. Today, living and working in cosmopolitan Nairobi, I look back with a mixture of horror and bemusement on my girlhood fascination with female circumcision.

I escaped mutilation, but other girls from my rural Kenyan community continue to receive “the cut” to this day. Only last month, in Narok, the town nearest my childhood village, a 13-year-old girl died after undergoing circumcision as a preparation for her marriage to a man who already had five wives. When the girl died, her father and fiancé conspired to have her body secretly buried in the bush. Kenya’s police learned of the girl’s death and legal action is being prepared against the men.

But punishment for the perpetrators of female circumcision remains rare. The practice persists, despite legal bans. As a child-welfare officer in Narok told me, “Unless attitudes are changed, efforts to stamp out the practice will be futile."

Parents’ attitudes are changing, but slowly. Government can do more, of course. One new initiative calls for local leaders to be dismissed whenever high numbers of girls drop out of school.

The logic is compelling: if girls remain in school, they can avoid “the cut” and early marriage. Once educated, these girls may decide for themselves – as I did – to resist mistreatment at the hands of their family and neighbors.

At the same time, much more needs to be done to combat the practice, in Kenya and everywhere in Africa where it continues. International opposition helps. For decades, activists in the United States and Europe have brought attention to the problem and urged African governments to prosecute perpetrators.

Nevertheless, because female genital mutilation is tied to a wider set of traditional practices involving the control of girls’ bodies and minds, and because these traditions have a powerful hold on some Africans, ultimately the practice can be halted only through concerted efforts by Africans themselves. Only if we change the views of our friends and neighbors can more girls escape “the cut” – and never long for it.

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