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Female circumcision International School of Kenya Nairobi

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					A Dangerous Rite of Passage, by Stephanie Welsh
    From the Nation newspaper, 7 May 1995
Summary
Female circumcision is seen by many to be a rite of passage
necessary for a young woman to find her rightful place in
society. However, the health risks both physical and
psychological are immense. The practice in Africa may be
slowly dying out, but it will continue for years to come.

Penina, a 13-year-old Maasai girl, sits on a sheepskin laid
at the door of her mother's hut. Her legs are held open by
her aunts while an elderly circumciser makes rapid cuts to
her genitals. Without any anesthesia and forbidden to cry
out or show fear, the girl bites on a cloth during the 10-
minute operation until the circumciser is through.

    Toward the end of the operation, Penina passes out from
pain and blood loss. The wound is cleansed with cow urine
and smothered in goat fat to stop the bleeding, and the
girl is put in bed until she regains consciousness. Her
proud husband-to-be, waiting outside, is congratulated by
elders. Many relatives and friends have come, bringing
gifts of goats and money for Penina's father.

    The next initiate, Penina's 11 year-old sister
Enkarsis, is not so brave. As the circumciser makes the
first cut to the clitoris, the child howls in pain: "Why
are you killing me? Leave me alone. Why do you want to kill
me?" The circumciser cackles with laughter. "Mom, why can't
you save me?" pleads Enkarsis.

    Her mother reprimands her sternly, "Keep quiet! You
should be able to withstand this thing. You are not a
coward."

    When asked why she laughed throughout the operation,
the circumciser answered, "The pain doesn't kill. We laugh
because it is our culture, and we have all passed through
this stage .... She is so beautiful because she is a clean
woman now. She is a grown-up."

    Despite repeated denunciations of female genital
mutilation by humanitarian and women's organizations and
even a presidential ban on the practice, mutilations
continue. Many ask why. The answer is deeply rooted in
tradition, and the stark brutality of the act is readily
justified through culture.

    "Circumcision is meant to reduce a woman's sexual
desire so that she won't go looking for extramarital
affairs," says women's health advocate Lois Towon.
Ironically, the result may be the reverse. The headmistress
of a girls' boarding school in Kajiado, Priscilla Nangurai,
says the school loses 10 to 20 young girls a year who
become pregnant after being circumcised.

       "A girl is free to have sex with any man after she
is circumcised, and men take advantage of that," says
Nangurai. "It is not in our culture to refuse a man."

    Unlike Somali and other Muslim cultures that circumcise
to preserve virginity around the age of seven, the Maasai
circumcise girls at puberty as an important initiation into
the tribe.

    Circumcision is considered the most significant rite of
passage to adulthood. It is said to enhance tribal and
social cohesion, increase a girl's marriage opportunities,
and increase a father's status within the community.
"Parents are not out to hurt their daughters," says Charity
Mailutha, program officer for the Family Planning
Association of Kenya. "But to prepare them for marriage, to
prepare them to be women who can be accepted in society;
circumcision is the only way they know. It is a passage
from childhood to adulthood."

    But how far must a woman go to feel that she belongs to
her society and culture? According to World Health
Organization estimates, at least 100 million women in 26
countries in Africa have had to pay a high price for their
identity. And even in its mildest forms, female genital
mutilation poses serious health risks.

    "Female circumcision is the most sensitive part of the
body, [and] the wound left behind is both physical and
psychological," says Mailutha. The type of genital
mutilation most common among the Maasai and Samburu tribes
is excision, where the clitoris and the adjacent parts of
the labia minora are removed. Many Samburus also practice
infibulation, which involves sewing together the two sides
of the vulva. The girl is required to hold her legs
together for up to a month, allowing scar tissues to grow
together and leaving only a small opening for urine and
menstrual flow.

    Besides blood loss, which can be fatal, genital
mutilation can have severe long-term side effects including
urinary tract infections, chronic vaginal infections,
excessive growth of scar tissue, and stones in the urethra
and bladder caused by the obstruction of menstrual flow.
The mutilation often leads to reproductive tract infections
and infertility.

    By far the most critical complications arising from
genital mutilation come during pregnancy. Prolonged labor,
which is life-threatening to both mother and child, is a
common result.

    Most people say that the practice of female genital
mutilation is dying out, especially in Nairobi and other
urban centers. But there is little hope of eradication in
the near future. "We have more important things to worry
about," such as the poor and unemployed, says Minister
William ole Ntimama, one of the most influential Maasai
leaders.

    "What can be more important than the health of
thousands of women in Kenya?" asks women's health activist
Leah Muuya. About 70 percent of the food produced in Africa
is the work of women. Women also carry the burden of
raising children and running the household. "Without women,
African society would fall apart," she adds.

    In 1982, President Daniel arap Moi officially banned
female genital mutilation, but 13 years later, the ban
seems to have had little effect. Some circumcisers were
arrested, Mailutha says, "but when they went to court, the
cases were thrown out because there is no law that makes
circumcision illegal."

				
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