“We are the light that will shine across Kenya, we will not undergo female genital mutilation”
These words were proudly echoed by 80 girls to their families, church members and the world, at a local parish in Nairobi, Kenya. The girls were taking part in the Christian Rite of Passage program which has proven to be a successful alternative to undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). This innovative initiative transforms lives and is the brain child of Loreto Sister Ephigenia Gachiri. For the past 17 years Sr. Ephigenia has dedicated her life to ending the barbaric practice which remains woven into Kenya’s social fabric.
The magnitude of FGM is revealed in new data compiled by UNICEF, which shows at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone ritual cutting; half of them living in just three countries. Disturbingly, that means 70 million more females than estimated in 2014, have been cut.
In Kenya, where Sr. Ephigenia is based, 27% of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM. The process usually takes place before a girl reaches puberty, though it is sometimes performed on children as young as 6 years.
Take a moment to imagine you are walking across dry and arid land to get your daily water. You wait until all the villagers have taken their water before you scoop yours. By this time the water is muddy and too dirty to drink. You walk back alone to your tribe carrying a can of dirty water. How do you survive? This is the isolation for girls who aren’t circumcised.
“If you marry a man and you’re not circumcised, none of his friends can come to your house and eat food,” said Sr. Ephigenia.
Women can be more attached to tradition than men and this is one of the major issues in eradicating FGM. There is an enormous amount of cultural importance placed on this rite of passage, preparing a girl for motherhood. After a few years of research Sr. Ephigenia realised she would have to provide an alternative and so she created a new rite of passage for children entering adulthood – a rite without pain or mutilation.
Each year Sr. Ephigenia holds the Christian Rite of Passage training and associated ceremonies in August and December during school holidays, as this is the most popular time for girls to undergo FGM.
The training involves attending 33 workshops on topics that offer psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual teachings to the girls, with the aim of giving them a smooth transition to adulthood. She has trained 30 staff to run these sessions, which are always held with the blessing of the local priest, pastor or village chief.
After seven days the girls celebrate their journey with a special graduation ceremony attended by their parents, friends and church community. They stand in front of the entire room and make a promise to themselves, “to remain whole, the way God made me, and not to be maimed by being circumcised, to keep myself whole in both body and soul.” These are words profoundly symbolic of a world of justice and peace created through change and with the contribution of all concerned.
Words: MWIA Communications Manager, Elouise Hahn