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How do you change traditional rites?

Girls and boys in the community where CIFORD works.

Girls and boys in the community where CIFORD works.

I’ve been pretty convinced for a while now that change will only happen in a community when the members themselves are leading the movement. It rarely works to fly into another country, encounter a culture for the first time, and successfully convince them to adopt a totally new practice.

And so it makes sense that the best way to eliminate the traditional practice of female circumcision as a rite of passage is to have the change come from within the community, rather than from outsiders.

Tribes in Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East – spanning Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and animist religions – use the traditional rite of passage, which is also called cutting or female genital mutilation, FGM. However, the practice is painful, dangerous, degrading and can cause health problems for the women for the rest of their lives.

Boys Are Affected Too

When visiting Kenya, I was shocked to learned that boys (aged 13-21) also go through the circumcision rites at puberty. We met boys who, once circumcised, were no longer allowed to live with their parents. This practice effectively forced them out of their homes at a young age and required them to find relatives or friends who could welcome them.

Tragically, over the course of a single week this past May, 23 boys died in northeastern South Africa during a traditional male circumcision rite of passage. Most died due to bleeding and infections.

Many outsiders and bureaucrats have tried to change the practice for boys and girls through top-down methods. The perhaps expected result of outlawing these rites is that the practice goes underground into unsafe and unsterile situations and discussion is closed off.

What is working?

Girls present a poem at a CIFORD Kenya alternative rite of passage ceremony.

Girls present a poem at a CIFORD Kenya alternative rite of passage ceremony.

There is encouraging change in Ethiopia happening now.

KMG-Ethiopia uses a method called “community conversations” to engage  whole communities in discussions about the issue of cutting. KMG-Ethiopia’s leader, Bogaletch Gebre, knows the importance of engaging the community first. “You must allow the community to decide for themselves rather than condemning. To make people understand the harm that comes to their children you can’t come in and tell them ‘you are doing bad and must stop.’” (Click here for a video from the New York Times about the work.)

Gebre comes to the conversations as an insider; someone who has credibility and personal experience with cutting. And her bottom-up strategy of change – starting within the community rather than imposing it from the outside – allows people time to change for themselves and to change the local stigma against uncut girls.

One astonishing result of the community conversations is that in one community now only 3% of the people support cutting, compared with 97% support in 1999.

Spirit in Action’s Role

A CIFORD parade celebrating girls' rights in Kenya.

A CIFORD parade celebrating girls’ rights in Kenya.

I care about this issue of safety, health, and children’s rights and so I am proud that Spirit in Action has supported similar community-led anti-FGM change.In 2011 and 2012, SIA (with support from the Charles Wentz Carter Memorial Foundation)  enabled 170 girls to attend CIFORD Kenya seminars and to spark change in their community.

CIFORD Kenya starts the discussion about FGM with the girls themselves. Girls Empowerment Seminars cover a variety of topics over five days, empowering the girls to know about their bodies, rights, and opportunities. The seminars conclude with public celebrations of music, poetry, drama, and a parade as an alternative rite of passage.

Armed with information, the girls then spread the message of change and respect to families and school friends. These are the first steps – opening discussion, involving girls and their families, acknowledging the need for a celebratory rite of passage – that will gradually lead communities to embrace practices that support, empower, and encourage youth across Kenya.

See CIFORD seminars in action! (3 minutes)

Read more about CIFORD:

  1. Video testimony from Ruth

  2. Video testimony from Esther

  3. 2012 SIA blog update:

  4. SIA Newsletter story:

  5. Local Champions Mobilizing Local Resources: The community work of CIFORD

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#women #womensrights #LocalOrganizations #girls #SIAGrants #Kenya #Empowerment #CIFORD

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