HomeArticles​Women of the Maasai fight back for their daughters

​Women of the Maasai fight back for their daughters

Girls as young as 10 feel the blade but an extraordinary group is fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM).

“The Maasai society denies girls an education; they prefer to send male children to school …”

A cellphone rings, interrupting Faith Mpoke in mid-sentence. It’s an emergency that the small woman with tightly braided cornrows is used to tackling, quickly and with a cool head. 

“A girl has just been cut. The ceremony is happening right now, but we don’t know where exactly,” she says as she listens to her informant, trying to figure out the precise location in the savanna to which she will send a delegation of women and a police escort to help the victim and denounce those responsible.

“Aren’t you going, Faith?”

“No, it’s safer if they don’t know my face,” she smiles, “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to travel around the villages anymore.”

In Elangata Wuas, a settlement in Kajiado County in southern Kenya, 80km from Nairobi, everyone is familiar at least with Mpoke’s name. In this community of 13 000 people overshadowed by the Odonyio hills, she is known as the “different” Maasai: a scandalously independent woman to some; an extraordinary example to follow to others.

Kenya made FGM a crime through the Children Act (2001) but several ethnic groups, such as the people in the Maasai village near Elangata Wuas, still practice female circumcision. (Simona Ghizzoni)

She is 33 years old, has a son and has been working with nongovernmental organisation ActionAid International since 2011. Every morning, she sets out in a Jeep from the gloomy town of Kajiado for the steep, barren dirt roads that lead to the thorny bushes enclosing the enkangs — camps with round, poorly lit mud huts — and tries to persuade her people that it’s time to look towards the future. 

And the future, in the land of the Maasai pastoralists, begins with renouncing traditions that herald disease, maternal-infant mortality, ignorance and poverty, traditions such as FGM. “I underwent it, too,” Mpoke says in a faint voice. 

“But my mother was a teacher and she fought for me to be able to complete my school education. This is an issue that is still taboo in my family. They disapprove of me and find me shameless because I talk about it and take my decisions without asking my husband’s permission.”

In Kenya, according to Unicef’s 2016 FGM prevalence report, 21% of women have felt the blade on their genitals. The national prevalence varies within the more than 40 ethnic groups in the country, and in the Maasai society (around 2% of the population) it reaches 73%. 

The seminomadic cattle herders, obstinately devoted to a patriarchal social system, impose the ormurunya, a traditional knife, on girls aged 10 and 11. This entails the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. Emuatare, the Maasai word for female circumcision, is less ferocious than the infibulation typically carried out in the Horn of Africa, which concludes with sewing the vagina closed. 

But it still disfigures a woman’s body, condemning it to haemorrhages, infections and complications during childbirth owing to the inelasticity of tissues. It also denies women sexual pleasure so that wives remain monogamous and submissive. 

“But that’s not all,” says Mpoke. “Emuatare is the root of female illiteracy and early marriages. A cut girl is considered to be a woman, thus forced to leave school to get married to an older man who offers the girl’s family a dowry in cattle, their most valued goods.”

The “cut” is unrelated to religion, which, for the Maasai, is a syncretism of Lutheran Christianity and the cult of the ruthless god Enkai. Emuatare is an indisputable social norm that marks the passage from childhood to adulthood. “If you get pregnant before circumcision,” says Mpoke, “You are branded as an entaapai, a slut, and no obstetrician will assist you during childbirth.”

Kenya moves to legislate against FGM

According to the ministry of health’s 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, prevalence of the practice has decreased by 20% among the Maasai in Kenya since 2003, but the struggle towards women’s liberation is still nascent. 

Yet Kenya is considered a champion in the battle against FGM in sub-Saharan Africa: prevalence has fallen by 16% nationally since 2003 and the report Demographic Perspectives on Female Genital Mutilation, released in 2015 by the United Nations Population Fund, estimates a further decrease of 40% by 2020.

There are two strict laws being enforced: the latest one, passed in 2011, foresees up to three years imprisonment for cutters as well as sentences for those who discriminate against women who are not cut. The government established an anti-FGM commission in 2011 and a national prosecution unit has investigated cases in Kenya since 2014 to enforce the law. But within the confines of the Maasai enkangs, the only supreme law is what is sanctioned by the elders following the path of tradition.

“Many people organise ceremonies secretly,” says Konina Tarayia (50), the chair of the local Women’s Network at Elangata Wuas. There are dozens of female members of all ages with short-cropped hair and wearing huge, dangling earrings made of coloured beads.

They trudge for kilometres on foot to meet under the acacia tree outside the ActionAid office to discuss women’s rights and social issues. “We have suffered genital mutilation for too long,” says Tarayia. “We want to spare our daughters and nieces from the pain. Once, a girl died from haemorrhaging. We women protested and her parents were arrested, but the cutter escaped.”

In two years, these relentless women, who mingle serious meetings with song, dance and irresistible laughter, have convinced many families to keep their daughters intact. They visit schools to talk about women’s rights, invent role-play games and even involve former cutters — who until recently earned $20 a day to sharpen their knives — in the battle. 

Kimuntet Kaise, leaning against her hut under the sweltering afternoon sun, tells how good she was at healing the wound by covering it with a paste of cow manure. Until the day she saw her niece die. “I was shocked,” she says, “so I quit this job. The women helped me and now I sell wood to schools.” 

Kimuntet Kaise is a former circumciser. She quit after a priest explained that it was illegal and harmed the girls. (Simona Ghizzoni)

Ester Oseur buried her ormurunya knife long ago and describes having physically struck “mothers and fathers who wanted to circumcise their daughters. The Women’s Network gives us courage. We are many and we are strong, no one dares attack us.”

Mpoke, who founded the Women’s Network at Elangata Wuas, says: “The Maasai society is male-dominated. Women don’t have a voice and they don’t have property rights. These women have seized their place in the community and carry out excellent work in raising awareness about the effects of FGM. “They get fathers, husbands, and local leaders involved and explain that the only way the entire society will make progress is to send girls to school.” 

Julius Rotiken, an influential elder in one of the villages, is one of these “feminist males”. “My uncle did not have his daughters circumcised and I saw how they were healthier and did better at school,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are few men here who see things as I do.”

Lucy Yepe Itore is familiar with the ferocious reprisals of the Maasai men. Vice-principal of the school in Il Bissil, not far from Kajiado, she made room in the dormitories two months ago for 20 girls taken from their families to rescue them from genital mutilation and early marriages.

The girls at Il Bissil rescue centre near the town of Kajiado find refuge there. Not all of them escaped FGM. (Simona Ghizzoni)

There isn’t a day that goes by when morans, young Maasai warriors, don’t arrive at the gate wielding sticks and demanding the return of their young girls. “They threaten me. I had to hire guards,” says Itore, a matronly woman seemingly not afraid of anything, as she bursts out laughing.

Like Mpoke, she receives emergency calls from her “spies” in the camps and leaves on expeditions in the night to save girls. 

“In another rescue centre, we accommodated 130 girls,” she says. “Some of them have since become nurses, one works for an international NGO and travels around the world. I am convinced that by allowing girls to study and further their education, we’ll be able to turn around not only their destinies but our people’s destiny as well.”

Sukuta is nine years old, the youngest girl at the rescue centre in Il Bissil. She has a bright, sweet face and her eyes burst with curiosity.

She looks vastly different from when she first arrived, traumatised and in terrible pain. She had been married for three months to a man as old as her grandfather, who had bought her innocence with a dowry of five cows. 

“I would like to meet her parents and try for reconciliation,” says Itore. “But they haven’t answered. Many parents, once their daughters have settled here, say: ‘That’s it, she is no longer my daughter.’ Very sad stories.”

Irene is only 13 but she’s already a mother. Itore’s sentinels found her segregated at home. “All she was asking for was to continue going to school. Her grandmother is now taking care of her child.” Irene wants to talk about herself, but tears, weighty and paralysing, flow over her words. 

Irene, 13, was raped and impregnated when she was 10. Her father stopped her from returning to school and gave her child to her grandmother. (Simona Ghizzoni)

Soila, also just 13 years old, ran away from two marriages and she sings us a song: “I sang it softly to myself to give me the strength to get through the worst times.”

To cover the education costs of the 20 fugitives — the number may have doubled since we spoke — Itore organises long-distance adoption through ActionAid. “All they own is their shuka, the Maasai blanket they were wearing when we saved them. They need everything.”

In the schoolyard, watching the girls play with the water gushing out of the well while singing in a round dance and laughing loudly in their pink school uniforms, you can’t help but think they have already won the battle against the cruel legacy that tried to rip their childhood to shreds.

UNCUT is a multimedia project by Emanuela Zuccalà. It has been developed with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program” of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona. View the complete web documentary at uncutproject.org/en/.

This is the final part of the M&G’s three-part series on FGM. To see the entire series, go to mg.co.za/uncut

Emanuela Zuccalà is a freelance journalist, writer and filmmaker experienced in women’s rights. Her work has been published, among others, by El País, Worldcrunch, Mail&Guardian, D-Repubblica. In 2012 she won the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Sans Frontières. Her documentary movie Just To Let You Know That I’m Alive has been awarded prizes by several international film festivals, such as the Margaret Mead in New York City and the Aan Korb of the Bbc in 2014. In 2016 she launched Uncut, a multimedia project on female genital mutilations, which has been published in 7 countries in Africa and Europe, and won 15 journalism and documentary awards. Her latest multimedia project is Crossing the River, about maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her books include Sopravvissuta ad Auschwitz. Liliana Segre, una delle ultime testimoni della Shoah (Paoline Editoriale Libri, 2013), Donne che vorresti conoscere (Infinito, 2014), and Giardino Atomico, an investigative reportage about the social effects of the Chernobyl disaster (Infinito, 2017).