Zipporah Kittony was thirteen years old when she ran away from home. She was running because her parents were refusing to let her take part in a common cultural ritual — one that she is now fighting to end.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) was prevalent in the region of Kenya where Kittony grew up. "It was a very important ceremony. We all looked up to the girls who had undergone the procedure; they were considered mature women and admired by the community," she says. "If you weren't circumcised, you were considered a child forever. You would never have a good standing in the community."
Kittony secretly ran off to the area where the ceremony was being held, but her parents found her and brought her home before anything happened. "I cried and cried," she recalls. "I just wanted to be like everybody else and fit in."
Her early teens were difficult. She was teased and ostracized by her peers — especially by the boys her age — because she had not undergone the procedure. "I felt so isolated," she says. There was a bright side, however. Kittony says these difficulties led her to develop an inner strength that has guided her through the rest of her life. "The situation helped me create my own principles. I learned to be strong and carry on by myself in school. I worked hard to beat them and show them I was just as good as they were." And later, when she went away to a boarding school, she learned about the dangers of FGM. "To this day I thank my mother for saving me," she says.
Kittony, now a member of Kenya's parliament, volunteers with Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a non-governmental organization whose mandate is to promote the welfare of Kenyan women and girls. Working to help end FGM is a major component of MYWO's work.
"FGM is one of the worst forms of violence against women," Kittony says. "It makes the life of young girls who have undergone the procedure very unstable." Complications, including serious infection and debilitation, often lead girls to drop out of school. Long-term health problems and even death are not uncommon.
The ritual, however, is deeply ingrained in the traditions of much of Kenyan society. It became clear, Kittony says, that the most effective way of ending FGM in Kenya was not to do away with the ceremony completely, but to transform it.
A UN Trust Fund grant helped support a pilot project called "Alternative Rite of Passage," a collaborative effort by MYWO and the Program for Appropriate Technology and Health (PATH). The aim was to replace the cutting ceremony with training on empowerment and health and human rights.
Kittony describes the ceremonies that resulted. "During the school holidays, we'd get the girls together with educators, FGM practitioners, and their peers. We'd talk to them and hold a series of lessons on the dangers of FGM, such as infection with HIV/AIDS, for example. Women who had undergone the procedure would talk about their personal experiences with complications from FGM. It was like an education in life," she says. "We'd then get the whole village together and perform the ceremony. It was still a joyous and important event. Everyone dressed up and we ate good food, danced, and sang. Instead of marking the transition of these girls to womanhood with blood, we used food and drink. The girls were very happy and you could tell that our message really made an impact."
In addition to attending these alternative ceremonies, Kittony often accompanies these young women to another, more traditional, type of ceremony — their weddings. "To many of the girls who we've helped protect from FGM, we've become like their mothers. They invite us to their weddings and we feel like part of their families. It feels so good to know that I've made such a difference in their lives."
FGM practitioners, usually older women who derive great respect as well as an income from their work, are key to changing attitudes towards FGM. Once they are made fully aware of the sometimes-tragic results of the procedure, many swear off the practice, Kittony says. "But we cannot stop there," she adds. Alternative occupations must be found for these women so they can continue to support themselves. "In order to achieve sustainability, we must train these women to do something else for the long term, otherwise they will have no choice but to return to the practice," she says.
Kittony is optimistic that MYWO will be successful in its battle against FGM. "The message is sinking into people's minds and I'm positive that attitudes will change," she says. "We still need to intensify our work and reach out to more districts. We'll need lots of support, but I have no doubt that we'll get there in the end."
Zipporah Kittony, a member of Kenya's parliament, works with Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a non-governmental organization striving to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and promote the welfare of Kenyan women and girls. MYWO and PATH received a grant in 1997 from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for the project titled "Effort to Reduce Female Genital Mutilation through Alternative Coming of Age Initiation Program."
(Story Date: 24 November 2000)