Kenya: On a Mission to Offer Girls an Alternative Rite of Passage

Nairobi — Susan Chebet (second right) welcomes Marakwet MP Mrs Linah Chebii Kilimo to a function at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi.

There are some customs and traditions that are hard to change. But as the wise saying goes, they keep changing with time.

These changes are particularly difficult to implement in communities where tradition and custom are deeply entrenched.

Mrs Susan Chebet is already transforming the custom of female genital mutilation.

Born in 1955, Chebet grew up in a rural setting in Keiyo District where socio-cultural and traditional practices that befit a rural conservative community are the norm rather than the exception.

Between 1978 and 1981, Chebet undertook a Bachelors degree in political science at the University of Nairobi.

In 1998, she was awarded a World Bank scholarship to study Human Resource Development (Gender) at the University of Manchester, England. Her project was on the effects of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on women in Kenya.

Chebet has just completed her PhD studies at Moi University where she is a senior administrator at the Institute for Gender Equality Research and Development, which she helped found.

A firm believer in cultural values and virtues, Chebet has documented some of the cultural and traditional practices of the Keiyo community in a book titled Climbing the Cliff: A History of the Keiyo.

Though not an easy task, Chebet has found a way of getting the community in Keiyo District to understand that there are some practices that are harmful to the recipients.

Unlike many students who put up research projects that cannot be implemented, Chebet has put the concept of her PhD thesis into practice. Titled "The Effects Of Female Circumcision On Women Among The Keiyo: A Socio-Cultural Approach", she has gone the extra mile to implement the thesis recommendations with remarkable success.

Chebet, whose is yet to graduate with PhD on Human Ecology, formulated a curriculum based on the concept that is being used as an alternative rite of passage among the Kalenjin.

She has named the alternative rite Tumndo ne Leel, which literally means 'A New Initiation'. Her former primary school teacher, Mrs Jane Biy, is the chairman of the organisation.

Became a mentor

Chebet says she was happy to have Biy join Tumndo ne Leel because she has always been her role model and has also mentored many girls in her community.

"Biy had the cut in 1950s but that did not stop her from continuing with education and becoming a primary school teacher," Chebet explains.

"She was actually my role model and I liked the way she carried herself about. I came from a very poor family and I knew that it was only education that would get me out of poverty," she says.

Chebet's initiative strives to not only advocate and lobby for the abandonment of the outdated cultural practices among the Kalenjin but also the retention of the positive values of the community's traditions.

Having been a victim of the cut, Chebet's eyes were opened to the realisation of how deep rooted FGM was among the Kalenjin.

"My community was not ready to abandon FGM. They always believed that the cut was the gateway to initiation and stressed that girls must be initiated," she says .

"I realised that given an alternative they were ready to abandon the custom."

Of great concern were the harmful effects that came with the rite, conducted through cultural practices that do more harm than good to girls.

"First of all, the girls are coerced into undergoing the rite. Then, the whole episode is all about transforming the girls to just women and not responsible women," she explains.

Girls exposed to HIV

Graduates of the alternative rites of passage.

Chebet, who got married immediately after doing her 'A' levels, says the traditional rite is always carried out in a manner that deprives girls of their dignity and hampers their advancement and empowerment as women.

"The traditional way has no room for imparting life skills to the girls. For instance, when a girl is circumcised, she is meant to believe that the rite is her express ticket to marriage even if she is only 16," says Chebet.

She adds that, "Having been circumcised, a girl also feels superior and does not care about important things like education,"

Chebet argues that circumcised girls are exposed to sexually transmitted infections, early pregnancies and forced marriages. The end result of all these actions is curtailed educational advancement.

Born in a family of three daughters and four sons, Chebet recalls when as a girl her father did not want to educate her. He preferred to send her brother to school.

"What saved me was the fact that I was very bright and was always top in my class. My mother felt that I could be a clerk because there was a female court clerk in my village who really portrayed the power of educating a girl," says Chebet.

She was also lucky because at the time she earned herself a remission, an equivalent of a bursary and this meant that her father did not have to spend any money on her.

Chebet went to Kapkenda Girls' and Kipsigis Girls' School for 'O' and 'A' levels respectively. She is saddened that her age mates were unable to proceed with their education immediately after the cut. Instead, they either chose to marry or were married off immediately after the initiation.

"And the trend has not stopped as many girls are leaving school to get married," says this mother of four children.

"My concept, therefore, is a new form of initiating girls from childhood to womanhood without circumcision while at the same time maintaining traditions and customs," she says.

"It first works towards the abandonment of FGM and then advocates for an alternative rite of passage that does away with negative cultural practices and traditional values and incorporates positive ones."

These positive traditional values are then blended with modern society's social, cultural, health and economic values aimed at empowering both the women and girls.

Despite FGM being outlawed in Kenya, Chebet argues that efforts to fight it have failed due to strategies that have sought to erode the culture of communities practising it.

"Communities needed to hear anti-FGM crusade was not for abandonment of the all cultural norms that hold communities together," she says.

Chebet advises: "As we advocate for the abandonment of harmful traditional practices like FGM, care should be taken to retain the initiation aspect, which embodies the guiding and counselling of girls in conformity with our social norms and cultural values."

Therefore in coming up with the new concept, Chebet realised that anti-FGM activists needed to convince and get approval from the communities.

"My concept, therefore, is a negotiated, localised, bottom-up approach where all stakeholders in the community are involved," she explains.

The blending of traditional and modern values makes it easy for the old circumcision practice to complement the new concept in order to maintain the Kalenjin customs of graduating girls to womanhood.

In implementing her concept in Keiyo District, where it is on pilot phase, Chebet enlisted the help of the provincial administration, religious leaders and opinion leaders.

Most important, she went after the traditional circumcisers, known among the Kalenjin as motirenik. She changed their title to traditional trainers and counsellors.

"The motirenik are a respected institution among the Kalenjin and it was crucial that I incorporate them into my programme to make it acceptable by the community."

She managed to convince the old women that the concept would not render them redundant. They would still play pivotal roles.

The traditional circumcisers are re-oriented into the new method of initiation. They are equipped with skills to train and counsel the girls on positive traditional values that are still relevant.

Turn out impressive

Chebet also started an entrepreneurial initiative to induct the traditional circumcisers into alternative means of earning a living to slowly shift they economic dependence on FGM.

"For instance, I found out that most of them were very good in using beads to make attractive traditional regalia and gourds, which can earn them income," she says.

The concept was first tested in 2003 in Irong and Metkei divisions of Keiyo District where, according to Chebet's research, FGM was found to be rampant.

"As with any new thing, there were the doubting Thomases, but I was pleased that the concept was well received by those who saw its good intentions," says Chebet.

Through provincial administrators and church leaders, Chebet's programme spread out and within a short time parents willing to enrol their daughters in the programme were asked to register them.

"I was surprised by the turnout. What I expected would be a handful of girls turned out to be a 100 and from that moment on I knew my concept had become an instant success," Chebet recalls.

Girls sought were those between the ages of nine and 24, most of who are school going. However, even those out of school have not been left behind.

"Together with their parents and other stakeholders, we look for a venue, in most cases a school, where the girls will stay for the duration of the initiation," says Chebet.

The initiation is in two phases: Phase one is conducted during the April and August holidays followed by the next phase that takes place in December.

In April and August, the girls are taken through training on various aspects of life that prepare them for their transformation from girls to women.

During this period, they are taught eight topics: Kalenjin traditions, body changes and development, family and households.

Other topics include self-esteem and self-concept, empowerment, healthcare and disease prevention as well as individual morals and ethics.

"In traditions, we teach them about child birth, how children were named, old ways of circumcision, marriage and burial rites as well as taboos," explains Chebet.

Girls taught how to live

The girls are taught about dating and courtship, marriage and adult life, pregnancy and birth, child bearing and child care.

On empowerment, the girls are taken through lessons on setting personal goals, education, career and enterprise development, achieving set goals and leading a fulfilled life in economic, social and political spheres.

Other lessons on self-esteem include making personal decisions, coping with peer pressure, spiritual growth, developing a personality and how to deal with emotions.

On health, they are taught how to maintain personal hygiene and prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Other areas covered include; drug abuse, use of contraceptives and psychological problems arising from domestic violence, spousal abuse and child abuse.

"All these are lessons which are rarely or not taught altogether in the traditional methods of initiation," says Chebet.

She adds: "The traditional initiation practices concentrate mainly on the physical circumcision as opposed to training and counselling."

Facilitators include community opinion leaders, traditional trainers and counsellors, scholars and religious leaders.

"We incorporate Biblical teachings and our guiding principle is Hosea 4:6 where the Lord says my people are perishing because of lack of knowledge," says Chebet.

In December, the girls go into seclusion, mostly to review their teachings and get additional coaching on their transformation.

The month long seclusion culminates into a graduation ceremony where the girls are awarded certificates and presented with gifts in the presence of their parents.

One such graduation took place last month at Kimwarer Secondary School where a group of 200 girls successfully completed the initiation programme.

Since its inception, a total of 889 girls have undergone transformation through the new concept while 346 traditional initiators have quit the old practice to be co-opted into Tumdo ne Leel.

Pushing for positive change

The programme has so far covered Metkei, Tambach, Kamariny and Soy divisions of Keiyo District. During the graduation ceremonies, Chebet invites women in top leadership positions in the country to give motivational speeches and present the certificates.

Some of them include immediate former Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation chairperson Mrs Zipporah Kittony, Marakwet East MP Mrs Linah Kilimo, former East African Assembly MP Prof Margaret Kamar and former Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) Commissioner Ms Alice Yano.

Last month's graduation ceremony was presided over by Nairobi based-lawyer who is also a leading crusader against FGM, Ms Grace Kiptui. She was accompanied Dr Jonathan Bii, a lecturer at Moi University.

Following the concept's success, Chebet has registered a community-based organisation that addresses FGM among the Kalenjin.

The organisation is based in Eldoret town, where Chebet handles invitations from parents across the North Rift region.

"When this concept was successfully launched, I saw one of my aspirations fulfilled and I look forward to a positive change in society where all harmful cultural practices are abandoned and positive ones embraced," she says.

And she does not want this concept limited to Kalenjin community alone. "I would like other communities that carry out FGM to adopt and customise it according to their culture and socialisation process.

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