A small church house shelters about a dozen Masai girls escaping female circumcision and early marriage, age-old customs of the Kenyan tribe now frayed by health risks and new laws.
While Masai elders strongly defend their culture, some men have turned their backs on it, and in the town of Narok, to the west of the capital Nairobi, they have opened a church-run center to rescue girls from circumcision.
However, the running of the Hope for the Masai Girls center set up in 2007 has not been smooth, as angry men have often threatened its founders and some parents disowned their daughters after they went there.
“They see you as someone who is opposing their original culture, their original nature,” said Pastor Jacob Momposhi Samperu, who founded the rescue center.
Marrying off girls, who must traditionally be circumcised beforehand, provides a dowry for families. The bride price is often several cows, a prized property among the semi-nomadic Masai.
“Marrying an uncircumcised girl degrades your value as a man. There are some rituals the girl cannot participate in if she is not circumcised,” explained Martin Ololoigero, one of the managers of the rescue center.
During school holidays, Masai girls as young as nine undergo the dangerous mutilation meant to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, which automatically means they can be married off, usually to older men.
“It is important for a woman to be circumcised so that she can go to her husband’s home,” said Olemairuj Kipaken, a Masai elder in Narok.
“The Masai people don’t let their daughters marry unless they are circumcised unlike other tribes. When she has had it done, she becomes an adult. That is why it is good, she is in the position to go to a man’s home,” added Kipaken, standing cross-legged near a cattle stable.
Sitting on a bunk bed in their dormitory at the rescue center, two teenage girls recounted how they escaped the ritual and subsequent child marriage.
“My parents died and my guardians wanted to marry me off. That’s when I fled and came to this center,” said 15-year-old Mary Seela.
“Girls who are circumcised and married off lead a difficult life because some have to do menial jobs to get a small income.”
Her fellow escapee, Sarah Setoon, also 15, agreed.
“When girls are circumcised they have a lot of difficulties during childbirth. That’s why I refused to get circumcised,” she said. “They are married off to old men, and sometimes these old men may die and leave the girl facing so many problems, and she has to do odd jobs just to survive.”
The Masai are not alone: many other Kenyan tribes circumcise girls as a mark of maturity from childhood.
Circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, involves using blades — often unsterilized and without anesthesia — to slice off the clitoris and sometimes other parts of the external genitalia.
Resulting medical complications or even death due to hemorrhage have stoked repugnance among many non-governmental groups and the government, leading to condemnation and the outlawing of the practice.
Kenyan members of parliament have passed legislation banning female genital mutilation, with offenders punished by a seven-year jail term or a US$5,000 fine, and life imprisonment if the circumcision results in death.
Kenya’s first lady Lucy Kibaki called for strict enforcement of the new law.
“These punitive penalties are deterrent enough if effectively enforced,” she said early last month.
“Female genital mutilation is partly responsible for the high maternal and infant mortality rates, which are very common among communities where female genital mutilation is widely practiced,” Kibaki said.
But female circumcision is still widespread among the Masai and the harmful tradition still has strong supporters.
“It is not something that will end soon. It will take time,” admitted Ololoigero. “We don’t want to upset the community. Remember we come from that community. We want to have a gradual change.”
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