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Challenging a harmful rite of passage

World Vision
7 February 2013 by Michelle Lokot
Challenging a harmful rite of passage

Girls in Kenya graduate from World Vision’s ‘alternative rites of passage’ ceremony.

Recently I worked with some of our staff in Kenya who are running projects to prevent a harmful traditional practice on girls.

Worldwide, about 140 million girls and women are victims of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

Reasons for cutting vary based on context, but they include social status, culture, controlling women’s sexuality, a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood and religious obligation.

One particular staff member in Kenya particularly impressed me. She’s been working in the Rift Valley province of Kenya to change cultural and religious beliefs that motivate FGM/C for a number of years.

I was amazed to hear that she herself had undergone FGM/C – at age nine. Now, as an adult, she’s committed to ensuring young girls get the opportunities she never had.

“The reason why I am committed to ending FGM/C is that girls in this community… most of them don’t complete their education once they are circumcised,” she said.

In some cultures, FGM/C determines marriageability and is seen as the first sign of being an adult, so girls who have undergone the practice may be immediately married off.

When marriage begins, education stops and this has huge implications for girls and women.

Education is critical not just for breaking out of poverty, but also for determining future opportunities and status – the amount a woman will earn, the age she has her first child, how many children she has and how far apart they are spaced, her ability to make decisions and the survival of her future children all depend heavily on her level of education.

World Vision has been responding to the issue of FGM/C for some time. Common approaches include working with faith leaders to challenge the idea that the practice is required by religion, carrying out ‘alternative rites of passage’ programs, challenging perceptions at the family level, facilitating opportunities for community dialogue, and increasing community understanding of the health risks and rights violations.

World Vision is working hard to continue to develop better ways of responding to this complex cultural issue.

FGM/C is an incredibly entrenched practice and it takes time for behaviours to change. We’re committed to ensuring our responses to FGM/C are tailored to each community and challenge the root causes behind the practice.

Michelle Lokot is Gender Adviser at World Vision Australia.

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