This post/column/blog contains graphic details and information about cultural rites that mutilate and victimize women. If you are faint of heart – please do not engage.
To state the obvious, we live in a male dominated culture and world. Various cultures and societies have made progress in their treatment of women. As they earn seats in parliaments, state houses and corporate board rooms, it would seem that there is no turning back – women are equal to men.
Not so fast! In the developing world and no doubt in many places in First World, women still struggle to live a life free from male dominance, abuse and slavery. This week, I interviewed a young woman from the rural Kenyan county of Samburu – a university graduate – the first from her community.
My new friend and colleague from Samburu, Celina Arames Lepurcha from Sesia, in Samburu County Kenya, was unusually transparent with me in what was probably one of the more shocking interviews of my career.
Samburu young girls are forced by older women and tribal leaders to practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a rite of passage into marriage. Over 90 million young women in Africa between the ages of 0 and 15 undergo this ritual. Though the Kenyan government has taken steps to stop this practice, it is still very much a part of the culture and values of this community.
Young girls are victims of the sexual whims of elder men in search of another bride. Polygamy is the norm as men – older men – continue to seek younger brides often between the age of 12 and 15. Many of these child brides become widows sooner than later as their male partners die from either old age or disease.
She related the practice of older men seeking younger women as potential brides – many as young as 12. The men in the tribe or clan will have sex with these young women and if the young woman becomes pregnant and has not had the community ritual of female circumcision (cutting), then the women of the community force an abortion. Please note I said “forced abortion.” If forced abortion is not bad enough, the procedure for forcing the abortion is horrific. Celina said that the customary practice is to lay the young woman on her back staked to the ground or held down by other women in the community. At that point women jump up and down on the woman’s stomach and uterus crushing the fetus in the process. They continue to jump until they see the profusion of blood pouring from the uterus. The womb and its contents are crushed.
Celina emphasized at no point in this process is a woman given a choice. She has no choice but to have sex with the male, she has no choice about birth control, she has no choice about female circumcision and she has no choice about the abortion. The emotional and physical trauma of this experience is horrific and can be lifelong.
Celina returned to Samburu from Nairobi to work with women support groups. She focuses her attention on the young adolescent women of her community. I met with many of these woman on my trip to Samburu. They wear western clothing. They have goals and ambitions that include education and setting their own destiny for a family and career. Celina told me later that at least two of them had experienced this abortion rite.
Truly, a cultural clash looms on the horizon. Celina also meets with the elder women of the community, dressed in their costumes (shukas), to teach them how to market their skills at bead work and to create some economic independence. Celina teaches and empowers both groups to become independent. Celina tampers with centuries of oppression, cultural values and norms.
Change is happening in this remote village of Sesia led by a young woman of courage and determination. There is a glimmer of hope. Westerners are conflicted over these practices, admonishing us to avoid cultural intrusion and yet wanting us to protect and guarantee the rights of women. I am not sure we can have it both ways anymore. These practices, while not unique to Samburu or Maasai tribal communities cannot continue because they victimize half the population. As long as one woman must endure these practices, none of us should rest.
As I post this article to my blog, the Kenyan Parliament passed draft legislation prohibiting FGM and punishing individuals with a three year sentence for stigmatizing young women who refuse FGM. Development projects and emphasizing positive cultural practices that build trust is the alternative. Now, it is up to the communities to comply and the government to both enforce the draft legislation and promote development projects. The international community must work with these governments to assure that their young women are afforded the same protections that my daughters have. I would not stand for this treatment in my home, nor should I tolerate it in the global community.
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