A family in Kenya’s Maasai area, where female genital mutilation continues despite being outlawed, has been ostracised after rejecting the practice
Dec. 16, 2016- When Rampei Wuantai and his wife, Angela, decided not to make their daughters undergo female genital mutilation, they were not prepared for the bcklash.
The family live on a small homestead surrounding by acacia trees in the village of Illmotiok, in Kenya’s Kajiado county. Though outlawed in 2011, FGM is still widely practised in the area. The Wuantais were the first to reject the tradition.
“Our first motivation to go against this culture was religion. We are Christians and the Bible does not tell us to cut our girls,” says Rampei, 53, a pastor and driver. He and his wife have 10 children: four girls and six boys.
“Here, even chiefs and pastors still cut their daughters,” says Angela. “They speak against it during the day and cut their girls at night.”
In Kenya, chiefs work under the provincial administration and are in charge of locations and sub-locations, the smallest administrative areas. Their role is to maintain law and order; constitutionally, they have power to arrest anyone breaking the law in their jurisdiction. As Angela points out, however, some turn a blind eye to the continued practise of FGM.
When the family’s 18-year-old daughter, Josephine, was nine, she did not get cut like her primary school peers. At that time she was in year five. Throughout her next three years at the school, she was ridiculed by classmates who had been cut. “It really hurt me that my fellow students looked down upon me and called me abusive names just because I was not cut,” says Josephine.
Angela says she never imagined her children would have to suffer in school because of her decision. “Other women in the village also told me that it is wrong not to cut them because they will not find husbands. But I tell them that God has a plan for my children.”
Views are more enlightened in Empukani, close to the Tanzanian border in the south of the county, 130km from Illmotiok. On a November day during the school holidays, a dozen parents sit under a tree in the compound of the local primary school.
They are there to talk to the headteacher, Tom Nkasasi, about curbing FGM. Nkasasi is on a mission to prevent girls in his school from being cut, which he hopes will reduce school dropout rates, teenage pregnancies and early child marriages.
According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2014, 21% of 15- to 49-year-old women and girls said they had undergone FGM. That is a 6% fall on figures taken between 2008 and 2009, but the figure is still high.
The survey found that the Somali, the Samburu and the Kisii ethnic groups have the highest FGM rates, with 94%, 86% and 84% respectively.
Nkasasi said none of the 86 girls in his school had undergone FGM and no girl has dropped out of school over the past two years.
Unlike in Illmotiok, parents at Empukani have vowed not to cut their girls. Jennifer Taraye, 48, a mother of seven girls, says she has come to realise that FGM does not help the girls. “In addition, it is illegal,” she says. “And as a Christian, I know that the Bible does not say that girls should be cut.”
She echoes Rampei’s thoughts. The pastor says an education is more important for his girls than a husband and a few cattle from a dowry. “I am not a rich man. I have a few goats and I have been employed as a driver. That is how I pay fees for all my children. Sometimes I get assistance from donors, sometimes I don’t, but my children have to go to school,” he says.
Child marriage is also a major issue in Kenya. According to the 2014 survey, 23% of Kenyan girls are married before the age of 18; the UN says more than 480,000 20- to 24-year-old women in Kenya were married before they were 18, ranking it among the top 20 countries for child marriage. There is a high prevalence of child marriage in Kajiado county.
Traditionally, Maasai men do not marry uncut girls. FGM is usually performed to prepare a girl for marriage – and since this happens between the ages of nine and 13, the girls are usually married off early.
Taraye says Maasai men “consider an uncircumcised girl as a child who is not yet ready to bear the responsibilities of child bearing, therefore they can’t touch an uncircumcised girl”.
Rampei’s stance has caused ripples in the family. His brothers and sisters still cut their girls.
His niece, who had lived with his family since she was young, was taken back to her home by his brother and secretly cut. “The girl was subjected to a lot of pain and I had to go and bring her back here because what would have followed was my brother marrying off the girl,” says Rampei. She now goes to school with his children.
Kajiado county is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai. The Wuantais are Maasai.
Such is the family’s unhappiness about Rampei’s stance that he was not invited to his younger brother’s wedding. “That is the price we are paying as a family for not cutting our daughters,” he says.
The anti-FGM board, set up when the law was introduced in Kenya, is aware of such stigmatisation. Linah Jebii Kilimo, its chair, says they are working closely with a consortium of NGOs, county governments and community organisations to increase awareness of FGM. “We are out there educating communities together with a network of partners and we are reaching a greater number of people. We hope to completely change attitudes in the long run,” she says.
Rampei and Angela are encouraging their sons to marry uncut girls when they come of age. Their firstborn son, Kennedy Lankoi, 23, has decided already: “Many young men around here are now looking to get married to girls who have not been cut. Some have married girls from other communities who do not cut their girls.”