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This week we are lifting up an important day that raises awareness of violence against women and girls. February 6 is the “International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)”.

Author, advocate and friend of LPGM Juliet Cutler writes about the complicated topic of FGM in her book, Among the Maasai, which recounts the two years she spent as a volunteer teacher at the first school for Maasai girls in Tanzania.

Juliet has been instrumental in working with partners in Tanzania and LPGM to create a Safe House in Tanzania where girls who fear gender-based violence, including FGM, can find assistance and refuge.

Among the Maasai addresses the careful consideration required from outsiders who seek to bring awareness and change to a culture not their own. She reveals the important role that education can play in empowering young women to address gender-based violence and harmful practices within their own cultures.

Excerpt from Among the Maasai, by Juliet Cutler

Among the Maasai, by Juliet Cutler

(Used with permission)

For the first week of the second school term, I devised a plan to have my Form IV students brainstorm and write about various topics in what I called their writing journals. After they’d written about a topic, we would discuss it in class. I’d taken some prompts from previous national exams, but I’d also inserted some of my own.

“Animals in national parks are protected because . . .”

“Women and girls should be educated because . . .”

“The best things about Maasai culture are . . .”

When they turned in their first drafts, the last prompt was the most popular and had produced some of the most interesting responses. Many students wrote about the importance of family to the Maasai—about how the Maasai love children and view them as a blessing. A few students wrote about life in their engang (or home), and a few more about the importance of cattle to the Maasai, but more than half of the students’ essays started, “The best thing about Maasai culture is circumcision.” This stopped me cold.

As I read one essay after another that started the same way, I first recoiled and then became increasingly puzzled. I realized that many of the students worked together after class to complete the essays, and I recognized that for those who struggled with English, copying someone else’s essay proved to be a simple way to get the work done. However, there were enough differences in the essays that I realized that many, even most, of my students did, in fact, view circumcision as the best thing about their culture. Though I wanted to keep an open mind, I couldn’t help but wonder how a culture could possibly survive if the act of circumcising young girls and boys was its most redeeming quality. Even more troubling, this conclusion—that circumcision was the best thing about their culture—came from a group of educated young Maasai women. I wanted to understand, but I simply didn’t.

My knowledge of the practice told a bleak story. Prior to coming to Tanzania I’d sought to understand the implications of female genital cutting, and since arriving I’d heard a number of informal reports about the Maasai. I knew that, officially, approximately 18 percent of Tanzanian women and girls under the age of fifty were circumcised. Of the more than 120 cultural groups in Tanzania, the Maasai were among only fourteen that continued the practice. Unofficially, I’d heard the rate of circumcision among the Maasai varied from about 60 percent to nearly 100 percent. The number seemed difficult for anyone to accurately capture, as Maasai women often fail to report what has happened to them, fearing social stigma, retribution, or even prosecution.

I also knew that the Maasai practice Type I circumcision, entirely or partially removing the clitoris. Though Type I circumcision is the least destructive form of female genital cutting, the health implications can still be profound and include increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility, cysts, and increased risk of childbirth complications. Beyond this, the practice is a violation of girls’ and women’s basic human rights as established by numerous international treaties and declarations, including the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In 1998, just before I arrived at the girls’ school, the Tanzanian government prohibited female circumcision for girls eighteen years of age and younger. Unfortunately, I’d heard one of the alarming side effects of the prohibition was that the practice had gone underground in many parts of the country. There was an emerging trend in cutting girls at an early age, many before their first birthdays. And when there were complications, parents often didn’t take girls of any age to the hospital for fear of prosecution.

I’d surmised that the vast majority of the girls in attendance at the Maasai Secondary School for Girls had either been circumcised before they arrived at the school or underwent the procedure during school breaks. I also kept most of my feelings about this to myself, as I understood the complicated history of colonists, missionaries, NGOs, Westerners, and now the Tanzanian government intervening to discourage the practice among the Maasai. For some Maasai, this had resulted in a perception that attacks on circumcision were attacks on Maasai culture. I certainly wanted to appreciate the Maasai culture. I wanted to be respectful of it, but reading the girls’ essays celebrating circumcision tested my limits. How could I appropriately and sensitively respond to these essays as a woman who was not Maasai?

I began by looking a bit deeper, rereading each essay. Not one of the essays focused on the physical act—the actual cutting of flesh. Most of the essays discussed the gathering of family and friends, the singing and dancing, the special food, and the exchange of gifts—the same types of things I would describe if I were writing about Christmas or my birthday. The essays described the ceremony—the love and the laughter, the importance of tradition, the hallmark Maasai bravery, and the celebration of adulthood—and then they would end with a single sentence: “Nevertheless, for girls circumcision is bad.” One or two of the more articulate essays included a sentence or two about how the coming-of-age celebrations should continue, but the physical act of cutting should stop.

I could almost feel the internal conflict of these young women. They valued their culture and their families, even beyond what they could express in any language, and yet whether by education or by their own circumstances, they recognized the need for change. Though a few of the girls’ essays expressed a sense of helplessness that they would personally be able to change anything, a few of the students were advocating for a Maasai concept called engisaisai, which recognizes that Maasai culture is not static but dynamic and that positive change is possible through the adaptation of traditions.

As if seeing the future, I realized that, of anyone, these girls might become the leaders and drivers of that change. Though most of them had likely been circumcised, they would be among the young women responsible for redefining what it means to be a Maasai woman in the twenty-first century. I didn’t have to do anything but ask the question. They already had the answer.

Learn More about LPGM’s Safe Initiative

The Safe House-Safe Schools program provides a safe place for girls to live, tutoring, secondary and post-secondary schooling, and technical training.

girls at the Safe House in Tanzania

It also provides secondary school- and community-based programs that address the root causes of violence against women and girls.

Donate Now to Protect Girls

Here is how your gift can be put to good use:

  • $85 provides training for one teacher who can make a school a safer, more welcoming place for at-risk girls;
  • $220 helps a girl and her mother participate in training that leads to
    meaningful dialogue and community-based solutions to gender-based violence;
  • $350 supplies a year’s worth of basic needs to an at-risk girl;
  • $550 provides one year of technical training for an at-risk girl in subjects such as home economics, early childhood development, or community health;
  • $1,000 sends a girl to secondary school for an entire year.

Author Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry

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