For the Maasai tribe in southern Kenya, female genital mutilation (FGM), the custom of removing external female genitalia as a way to curb sexual desire, is a precursor to marriage. Parents who want a future for their daughters put them through the painful and unsanitary procedure between the ages of 5 and 15.
Jacob Auma, a Kenyan missionary to the Maasai people, has spent the past 24 years teaching them of the dangers of FGM, providing agricultural training, and sharing the gospel. He says ending FGM takes much more than preaching—it also requires transformation in the hearts and minds of the people.
And according to a comprehensive UNICEF report released this month, transformation is slowly taking place. More than 125 million women and girls have undergone FGM in countries across northern Africa, but that number is decreasing. Both Kenya and the Central African Republic have outlawed FGM and the practice continues to dwindle. Only a quarter of women in those countries are victims of the custom, down by 12 percent in Kenya and 19 percent in the Central African Republic.
But the custom is deeply entrenched in outlying tribes and Muslim-dominated countries such as Egypt and Sudan, where societal pressures compel mothers to cut, or circumcise, their daughters, even if they personally believe the tradition should end. About 90 percent of women in both those countries go through FGM.
The procedure often is done under unsanitary conditions, and village circumcisers have no reliable way to prevent excessive bleeding or a lifetime of health problems, including infections, infertility, complications in pregnancy, and death.
Cynthia Breilh, national director of the women’s branch of World Vision, has worked closely with efforts throughout Africa to end FGM and other forms of child abuse. Breilh said the practice comes from a misguided understanding of womanhood: “FGM is tied to marriage—marriage has long been the only future for girls in many countries. Girls themselves, and very often their mothers, do not think they are marriageable without being circumcised.”
During droughts, when food and money are scarce, a father often will marry off his daughter as young as 8 to the man with the most cows—usually decades older than the girl. Parents use the extra money to provide education to boys, while pulling girls out of school and forcing them into marriage.
Auma started working with the Maasai tribe by helping plant trees in the region, providing extra food and income to the families and giving Auma a reason to meet them. He talked to them about saving money for their children’s education and introduced them to a rescue center which allows girls to continue school and escape FGM and child marriage.
Auma and other Christian groups also helped build buildings in the area for churches meeting under trees, often in the rain or sweltering heat. The region now has 2,500 churches.
“The pastors, who have been like our representatives in their local churches, are aware that should any of the parents attempt to force their child to FGM, [the pastors] will be the first ones to take up the matter with them and then follow up the procedure with us,” Auma said.
But educating communities on the physical dangers of FGM is difficult because the tribes, which cannot read their native language, have maintained the custom for 200 years.
Still, Auma see slow but steady progress. The Maasai tribe no longer hosts open circumcision ceremonies and more girls from the tribe are finishing school. Three girls so far have gone on to college. World Vision’s Elizabeth’s School in the West Pokot Region of Kenya has seen an 80 percent decrease in the practice and an increase in the number of girls attending school.
Among young women, the cultural understanding behind FGM is slowly shifting. Over the past two decades, the number of women across Africa approving of the practice has decreased: In Egypt, 62 percent of women think FGM should continue, compared to 82 percent in 1995, according to the UNICEF report.
For the next generation of women to stop FGM, they must first be respected for their ability to make decisions about their future, Beilh said. “We are image-bearers of God, whether we are male or female, we both reflect God.”