Best In-Depth Writing: Third Place
An Alternative Rite of Passsage by Fr. Allan Weinert, CSsR
Editors Note: Each year, the Catholic Press Association puts out a call for entries of books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications to its Catholic Press Awards program. An Alternative Rite of Passage won third place for Best In-Depth Writing! The awards honor the accomplishments of Catholic journalists and publishers and affirm their commitment to spreading the Good News. For Liguori, they affirm our commitment to the mission of the Redemptorists. Judges comments: A delicate approach to a complex issue that clearly develops the core issues while exploring solutions to the problems presented. Insightful and well written.
Jane Kiura loves her village of Kajuki, located in the Meru Diocese in central Kenya, but she wants to completely get rid of a brutal practice in Kenyan culture so her teenage daughters and other girls don’t have to suffer mutilation like she did.
When Jane was a young woman, she went through a ritual called female circumcision, a rite of passage intended to teach young women their adult responsibilities as wives. The ritual signaled a readiness for marriage and motherhood. In traditional Kenyan culture, an uncircumcised girl was thought to lack the wisdom to raise a family. Regardless of her age, she was looked upon as a child who could not be expected to know how to look after a husband, let alone a household.
In recent years, new light has been shed on that cultural practice, offering freedom from its physical and mental violence. The Gender and Human Rights Commission of the Meru Diocese has developed an Alternative Rite of Passage aimed at eliminating the mutilation of young girls. Jane said, “I came to the realization that this cruelty was something I would not want my daughters to undergo. It is violation of human rights and should be condemned. I have three daughters. None are circumcised, and I am very happy for that. Now they can continue their education.”
Catholic tradition teaches that every human person is sacred and possesses an innate right to respect and ethical treatment. A key measure of any society or institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. The dignity of the person also extends to the human body, which also is sacred.
The success of the Alternative Rite of Passage in Kajuki is largely due to the efforts of Fr. Joseph Majau, pastor of St. Peter’s Parish. Fr. Majau emphasized his vehement opposition to any form of medically unnecessary modifications to a woman’s body. “Part of my spiritual leadership is to prepare young people for the sacraments of initiation: baptism and confirmation,” he said. “I tell these girls that they do not have to undergo female circumcision to participate in the fullness of Catholic life.”
The ritual of female circumcision encompasses more than just the practice itself. It is often deeply entrenched in a complex shroud of assumptions, taboos, and beliefs that impact a woman’s social status and personal identity in the community.
Although female circumcision is now illegal, the practice is still popular among certain Kenyan tribes. The origins of female circumcision in Kenya are not clear, but Kenyans generally agree that the practice is very old. They will say, “We learned it from our grandmothers,” but rarely offer suggestions as to where or why it may have originated. Because it has been perpetuated over generations, it is difficult for individual families and women to abandon.
In some tribes, female circumcision is viewed as necessary for bringing up girls, defending their honor, and maintaining the status of the entire family. Not conforming to the tradition brings shame to the family and prevents girls from becoming full and recognized members of the community. It can also lead to isolation and difficulties in finding a husband. Members of the extended family are typically involved in the decision-making about female circumcision, although women are usually responsible for the practical arrangements for the ceremony itself.
Female circumcision takes place within a period of time called “seclusion.” A young girl’s family decides when their daughter is to go into seclusion—usually between the ages of nine and eleven. A member of the extended family or a friend, usually an “auntie,” accompanies the girl for one month. The girl’s mother performs this duty. She knows what is going to happen, and she cannot bear to see her daughter hurt.
The young girl spends time in her home, completely isolated, and does not venture out into the village. During that time she is prepared for marriage and taught the essentials of managing a household. She receives instructions on how to raise children, how to prepare food, fetch water, and look after the cows and goats. She is taught how to behave in the community, how to respect older persons, how to please her husband, and how to interact with her in-laws. At the end of the seclusion, she is circumcised. The circumcisers are all women, who are paid for their services. The procedure is often called “the cut.” According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation includes all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the otherwise normal and healthy genital tissue for non medical reasons. The procedure differs from male circumcision in that it interferes with the natural function of the female body and is often used to inhibit sexual pleasure and as a form of control over women’s sexuality.
In rural areas, female genital mutilation is generally carried out by traditional practitioners using crude instruments and little or no anesthetic. It is often a very secretive practice, performed at night with no one else present. The young girl is forbidden to cry out in pain. Doing so would lessen her value and shame her parents. Once the bleeding stops and the wound healed, the girl is considered “grown up” and will usually marry within two years. Girls who undergo this procedure are rewarded with celebrations, public recognition, and gifts.
Circumcised women often suffer severe medical complications throughout their lives, ranging from serious to deadly. In the short term, complications include severe pain, shock, and hemorrhage, ulceration of the genitals, and injury to the adjacent tissue. During childbirth, a woman who has been circumcised can experience major tearing when tissue is ripped open. The hemorrhaging and infection that results can cause death.
Many people in Kenya would like to end the practice of female circumcision but are unable or unwilling to face the social exclusion that would follow. Women who are not circumcised are viewed with contempt. They are not only “uncircumcised” but are also considered ignorant, immature, and unclean. The fear of being labeled as such can be an extremely strong motivation for a woman to join herself or her daughter with those who are circumcised.
The Diocese of Meru did a baseline study of needs, focusing attention on gender violence and looking specifically at women in the Kenyan culture. Diocesan officials were careful not to condemn the culture or ignore the beneficial aspects of the seclusion. Instead, they determined to examine it critically and develop an educational program around it.
Martin Koome, program coordinator for the Alternative Rite of Passage said, “People think of their traditions as part of themselves. They find their identity by being able to fulfill them. It was very important to keep the beneficial aspects of the seclusion. We had to develop a curriculum for the new rite with great pastoral sensitivity.”
Martin also noted that although people cling to their traditional ways, they are willing to adopt new attitudes and behaviors if they are convinced that such a change will improve their health.
The Alternative Rite of Passage is an extension of the Gender and Human Rights Advocacy Program, which is unique to the Meru Diocese. The goal of the program is to increase the number of girls elevated by the community to adulthood without undergoing female circumcision.
The baseline study of needs was completed in 2003, identifying female circumcision as an issue of gender violence. The next four years were spent developing the curriculum for the Alternative Rite of Passage. The curriculum focused on a healthy lifestyle for the girls and on the social circle they live in, including the girls’ parents, other close relatives, peers (boys and girls), religious leaders, government officials, and the circumcisers. They asked parents what they wanted for their children. They talked to the Council of Elders in the diocese. They called community meetings Human Rights Seminars because, as Martin said, “If they knew the topic was female circumcision, no one would talk about it or even show up,” They held forums open to anyone in the community. They organized Children’s Rights Awareness Days, reciting poems and performing plays that explained the dangers of the traditional rite.
By the time the diocese initiated the pilot program, there already was a high level of acceptance for it. St. Peter’s Parish in Kajuki was the first to hold the new seclusion incorporating the positive aspects of the old rite. Fr. Joseph held a community forum where parents of eligible young girls could make a decision about their daughters. They identified the girls for the seclusion, with a targeted number of eighty. One hundred eleven girls showed up for the gathering, which resembled a giant sleep-over. The new rite lasted six days, beginning on Sunday night and culminating with a graduation ceremony that affirmed the girls and their new place in society.
During the seclusion, the young girls are told that they have the right to the highest possible attainable health and protection from harmful cultural practices. For example, if they are sexually or physically abused, they can go to a community leader, administrator, or church leader. They have the right to refuse an early marriage arranged by their parents. When grandmothers pressure or try to force them to undergo female circumcision, they have the right to say “no.” They are taught self-esteem and instructed on how to appreciate, understand, and manage the changes to their bodies as they grow up. They are told they can become leaders in their school and church communities. They are taught life skills, how to manage relationships, and how to receive love. They are assured that even though they are not circumcised, they are still desirable. The new rite empowers girls to be who they are and stops regressive practices. At each seclusion, two adults remain the entire time.
One sponsor representative and one parent representative witness the program so no false information can spread about any aspect of the week.
The defining achievement of the Meru diocesan program is that it captures the cultural significance of the seclusion while saving young women from the dangerous practice of female genital mutilation.
Rose Mutton, whose daughter attended the new rite, said, “When Martha came home, she was so happy. She felt free to ask questions she was unable to ask before. I saw a new confidence build in her. It was a beautiful expression of being empowered. She appreciated it as a Christian woman and has grown significantly because of her experience.”
When the Alternative Rite of Passage began to find wide acceptance, traditional circumcisions went underground. One night, Jane Kiura, program assistant, called Fr. Joseph to tell him that nineteen girls were hidden in different places and were going to be circumcised. Jane then telephoned friends who were keeping track of the circumcisers, and they figured out where the nineteen girls were hidden. Fr. Joseph called police and asked that armed guards accompany him to find the girls. The chief district officer and nine armed men went with Fr. Joseph in a parish vehicle to find the girls. They rescued six girls and brought them to the church for safety. The other thirteen escaped and were circumcised.
St. Peter’s Parish is also home to 130 children living in an orphanage. They have either lost both parents or a remaining parent is unable to care for them. Fr. Joseph has told the circumcisers that they will never touch the young girls at the orphanage. “I am the most hated priest here because of my opposition to female mutilation,” he said.
Simon Maingi, the chief legal officer in the area, said, “Local authorities, and especially village elders, need to understand that female circumcision is an inhuman practice.” In 1991, a presidential decree was issued against female genital mutilation; the 2001 Children’s Act outlawed it. But the penalty for it is only 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2), so it is not enforced seriously.
Access to education for African women is a major problem. The impact of a poorly educated mother is passed on to her daughter. Female circumcision contributes to the school dropout rate. Once a girl is withdrawn from school to participate in circumcision, she does not return. She is being prepared for marriage.
“We have replaced the cultural value of female circumcision with education,” Jane Kiura said. “We need nurses, doctors, teachers, and lawyers who can make a difference in our communities. By giving the girls an education, they become more independent and confident to make decisions that affect not only their own lives but the lives of others.”