What do you do when a cultural practice proves harmful? 1200 girls celebrate womanhood in mass Alternative Rite of Passage ceremony

11 September 2015

Loitokktok, Kenya, 28th August 2015

Known as fierce warriors, the Masai and Samburu are a people who are continually trying to preserve their traditional or cultural heritage, in an increasingly changing world.  Such heritage is underscored by various practices - one of which includes Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice they have held for generations, which marks the initiation of young girls into womanhood.

Rather than lose the good that accompanied FGM, the Masai and Samburu have decided to end the practice but embrace an Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP)-a ceremony designed to help the community abandon the act of FGM without losing their much cherished social values.

With support from AMREF, the two communities have been holding regular ARP sessions since 2009. Such was the case two weeks ago, when Masai and Samburu elders, Morans, government representatives, religious leaders and international development partners convened in Loitoktok, a border town with Tanzania to witness yet another ARP pass out of about 1200 girls.

According to AMREF, over 7000 girls have so far been through the ARP. The ARP is a 3 day celebration marked by seclusion and training of girls in Sexual & Reproductive Health, orientation on positive cultural norms and an open public ceremony characterized by denunciations of FGM. Further still, the initiative reaches out to the wider community and as of 2014, over 817 Morans, 85 Traditional Birth Attendants, 400 cultural elders and 246 religious leaders from communities as far as Magadi, Samburu and Northern Tanzania have been engaged.

The ARP has been highly successful and so far could be attributable to saving many women and girls from this practice. Indeed as a public ceremony to replace FGM, community members can see that most others in the community are actually abandoning the practice, and are personally influenced by this change.

Dr Owuor Olungah-a well-known professor of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi and a UNICEF Consultant on Social Norms, opines; “Before a public commitment, a typical family believes that a majority of families in the community expect others to cut but after the public commitment, a typical family believes that the majority of families in the community expect most families not to cut.” This is an exciting step forward in challenging social norms in a positive and respectful manner – and one which has great potential to bring about a significant impact on the acceptance of FGM.

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