THE MAASAI, BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, UGLY TRADITION
The Maasai believe that an uncut woman has sexual feelings for every man she comes across,
and is likely to stray from her marriage. In fact, they see FGM/C as a tool to curb the spread of
HIV/AIDS in their community.
Folklore explains the origin of female cutting in the story of Naipei, a young girl who had intercourse with the enemy of her family, and whose punishment came in the form of genital cutting a decision which her family took in the belief that it would to prevent her from feeling the urges that had led her to commit the crime. Since that day, in a bid to protect their honour and the honour of the Maasai society, as soon as Maasai girls who reach adolescence they are circumcised. The aim of FGM/C is therefore to limit the sexual desire and promiscuity of girls.
It is believed that 99% of Maasai women and girls have undergone type 1 FGM/C know as a clitoridectomy, which involves the removal of the clitoral hood and all or part of the clitoris. Today, because the procedure often has to take place in secret, female circumcision is mostly performed using shared and unsterilized objects, which can lead to HIV/AIDS and tetanus, and damage organs including the vaginal walls. Inflammation of the cells around the circumcision area also occurs shortly after the operation.
Physical effects of the clitoridectomy include:
- reduced sexual desire
- bleeding, often severe enough to cause death
- infection, particularly due to poor sanitary conditions
- risk of HIV transmission due to sharing of knives
- complications during childbirth, often leading to stillbirths
FGM/C is perceived as bringing honour to a girl and to her family; by making her eligible for marriage, it raises the status of her family in the eyes of society. The Maasai have held to the custom despite criminalisation of the practice by the Kenyan government in 2002.
Many Maasai families cannot afford to give their children formal schooling and the ones that can afford it prefer to educate their sons. In order to “protect” their daughters from lives of poverty, they choose to marry them off at a young age.
Most educated Maasai men and women still favour the practice of FGM/C, not because they are uninformed about the risks involved, but for fear of the social repercussions, should they reject the custom. Girls and women who refuse to be circumcised risk isolation, their chances of finding a Maasai spouse are reduced to almost nil, and their status in society will always be that of a child.
In 99% of the cases, FGM/C is “sponsored” by a prospective suitor. Aside from the actual surgical procedure, the rite includes a ceremony in which the entire community comes together to celebrate the girl’s passage to adulthood. In the Maasai community, once a girl undergoes circumcision, she can start a family. This belief has contributed greatly to the practice of early marriage among the Maasai.
FGM/C has been practiced for over 2000 years. Although it has obscure origins, there has been
anthropological and historical research on how the practice came about. It is found in traditional group or community cultures that have patriarchal structures. Although FGM/C is practised in some communities in the belief that it is a religious requirement, research shows that FGM pre-dates Islam and Christianity.
Some anthropologists trace the practice to the 5th century BC Egyptian custom called ‘Pharaonic circumcision’. If current trends continue, as many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut before their 15th birthday.
The human rights approach was pioneered by Molly Melchings’ charitable organization Tostan and works toward acknowledging that FGM/C is a violation of women’s and girl’s human rights. This approach is used alongside other strategies to eradicate FGM/C based on the social abandonment theory of FGM (derived from the social change theory behind foot binding in China).
The western attitude of “different cultures, different customs” toward FGM/C is no longer tolerable. We must acknowledge that if we accept the premise that any one person has human rights, then we all do; no matter one’s religion, location, sex, income, education or age.
By approaching these traditional yet harmful practices and customs with compassion, information and education, members of communities where FGM/C is prevalent are able to maintain their dignity and unique cultural identity without denying it’s most vulnerable citizens their fundamental human rights.