Daniel speaks proudly of his cultural heritage and passing it along to his children. There’s one tradition he and his wife won’t continue, though, in order to protect their daughters.
Female genital mutilation — also referred to as FGM or female circumcision — is a difficult subject to talk about in their culture, but the Kenyan couple agreed to speak with Unbound about their views.
FGM involves altering or injuring female genitalia for non-medical reasons. While it’s concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, it’s a universal problem, according to the U.N., and is practiced in some countries in Asia and Latin America and by immigrant populations in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Daniel and Sophia have eight children — four girls and four boys. One of their sons, an 11-year-old boy, is sponsored through Unbound.
Daniel was born in the remote Samburu area of northern Kenya, known for its beautiful landscapes and rich culture. He moved from there 20 years ago in search of opportunity.
“I am from the Kenyan tribe called Samburu,” Daniel said. “My people are very traditional and they are true to their culture. As the rest of Kenya embraces Westernization, we still hold on to what we believe is real — our culture.”
There’s much about Samburu culture that Daniel loves.
“I love the Samburu regalia and am so proud when I get to wear it,” he said. “It also makes me happy to see my family adorned in our traditional gear. Many tribes in Kenya have done away with their traditional gear, but we stand tall and beautiful with ours. It sets us apart.”
Daniel also loves herding cattle, which he’s done since he was a little boy.
“I chose to carry the culture that is good and do away with that which is harmful,” he said.
The practice of FGM harms girls and women. It can cause severe bleeding, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth and higher risk of newborn deaths, according to the U.N., which estimates that more than 140 million girls and women alive today have gone through some form of FGM.
“It is difficult for me to talk about this because I detest it,” Daniel said.
Still, he agreed to share what happens in his community.
“When a girl reaches puberty, she has to be initiated to womanhood,” he said. “Her ears are pierced, her two lower teeth removed and finally she has to face the knife. Female relatives (aunts and grandmothers) are the ones who perform this ritual on a girl. …
“If a girl refused to be part of this initiation, she is referred to as an outcast and she cannot find a man to marry her. … Immediately after circumcision, the girl is married off. Many girls are age 12 at the circumcision initiation.”
Daniel said he “would never let my daughters go through such a humiliating thing.” His wife agreed.
“I do not like the circumcision culture,” Sophia said. “I would not let my daughters go through such cruelty.”
Besides the physical and emotional trauma, FGM has other negative effects.
A 2012 Unbound program evaluation in Kenya’s Meru area cited FGM and early marriage as the two main cultural barriers to education.
“These two factors are to a great extent interrelated in that most girls are married off immediately after undergoing FGM,” said a study authored by David Wamae of Unbound in Kenya.
Economic pressures to marry off girls for a “bride price” contribute to the continuation of FGM and early marriage. Even if girls are not married immediately after FGM, they may believe they are no longer children and school is not for them.
Sponsorship through Unbound helps relieve economic pressures on families by helping with educational costs and other needs. It also provides families with economic opportunities and a safe space to discuss issues such as FGM through support groups for mothers. Local staff members also make families aware of the health risks of FGM.
“It’s important for both men and women to understand the risks of FGM and protect girls from this dangerous practice,” said Dan Pearson, director of international programs for Unbound. “FGM has no benefits and only brings pain, trauma and a host of health risks to girls and women.”
According to the U.N., the practice has persisted for more than a thousand years. Regina Muburu, communications liaison for Unbound in Africa, said it is seen as a “rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood” in some cultures, and is done to “tame [a girl’s] feelings and prepare her for the duty of being a wife.”
“This practice leaves a trail of destruction in the lives of girls,” Mburu said. “They are robbed of an important part of their lives as women, not to mention the health complications that can arise from the practice, especially during childbirth.”
While some cultures are known for upholding the practice, other communities continue it “mostly in hiding as the government has banned it,” Mburu said.
In the course of her work for Unbound, Mburu has spoken with women from several cultures about the practice.
“Talking to some women made me realize that they are at times forced by circumstances to make their daughters go through circumcision,” Mburu said.
One woman told her that if she tried to shield her daughter from the rite, “things might turn sour for me. My husband might decide to walk out on me and our children since we have disgraced him.”
Mburu said that in some cultures “anyone who wants to deviate is not only an outcast in her family, but also in the whole community.”
“I celebrate our rich culture and traditions as a Kenyan,” Mburu said. “However, I hope we can do away with cultural practices that discriminate against and hurt the girl child. I long for the day when we will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, taking the good and burying the bad.”
There are signs that attitudes are changing.
An evaluation in Unbound’s Meru program found that more than 90 percent of sponsored members surveyed said they felt confident and empowered to speak out against harmful practices. Another study found that girls and boys sponsored through Unbound stayed in school longer than the national average for Kenya, with girls remaining in school slightly longer than boys.
Daniel wanted to be a pilot growing up and wants his children get educational opportunities he didn’t have.
“My dream is to see my children excel,” Daniel said. “… I want them to have a better life, and that can only be achieved through education. They will become pilots and so much more.”
Melissa Velazquez, international evaluation and systems manager for Unbound, said Unbound provides a supportive context in which people can begin to make different choices for their families and futures.
“I am hopeful because with each generation things are changing,” Velazquez said.