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Once in a while you are privileged to experience something remarkable.

During my two-month photographer in residency at Finch Hattons, I was asked to document a three day event at a local Maasai community. Its purpose was to educate hundreds of children from the surrounding communities on alternative rites of passage and the dangers involved with FGM/C - the practise of Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision.

Finch Hattons is a long-standing friend of those living in the area and has always been proud to be associated with the local communities which border Tsavo West National Park, and were more than happy to help transport hundreds of children from the surrounding area to Iltilal Primary School in Kajiado County - where nearly 550 girls graduated to womanhood without undergoing ‘the cut’.

Through Amref Health Africa, Kenya a three day, community-led Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) educational program and vibrant graduation ceremony was held in the community of Iltilal, which borders Tsavo West National Park. This ground-breaking event was the first of its kind in this area of Kenya and its purpose was to educate children of the Iltilal and surrounding areas on ARP.

For generations young girls have been subjected to FGM/C at an early age - it is seen by communities that continue to practise it as a rite of passage, for a variety of religious and social reasons. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.

The actual FGM procedure involves either partial or total removal of healthy, external female genitalia - it has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways, causing tremendous pain and having several immediate and long-term health consequences. This practise is usually always carried out on children, some even before they reach a year old and up to around the age of 15. In essence, this practise is carried out on Minors and is prohibited by law.

During the first few hours, nearly 600 girls and boys of mixed ages arrived, excitedly socialising with their friends and waiting for their turn to register and sign in for the next few days, which could potentially have positive, life-changing implications…

The next two days were filled with training sessions and talks from teachers and educators from Amref and other organisations. These talks and training sessions covered several imperative subjects such as Female Genital Mutilation, children’s rights, early marriage, sexual education, sexual reproductive health and rights, sexually transmitted diseases and how to take care of their changing bodies.

All these topics teach that ARP takes away from FGM whilst retaining important cultural aspects such as blessings by elders. The sessions also play a pivotal role in keeping girls in school as they will often be taken out of education whilst they undergo the circumcision. These events encourage children to continue with their education all whilst preserving the cultural values of communities and arming girls with much needed life skills giving them a brighter more educated future.

At the culmination of the training sessions a vibrant ‘Candle Night’ ceremony was held, filled with dancing, singing and even a local fashion show, where girls and boys paraded in their traditional cultural attire. After a night of celebration, it was time for the students to graduate… hundreds of students peacefully marched, joyfully singing and shouting towards the elders’ boma for a symbolic blessing to welcome them into the next phase of their lives.

As the children gathered inside the boma, sitting in a large group, the elders of the village passed amongst them, splashing them with cow’s milk (which symbolises peace) from small clay urns which contained green leaves (symbolising life). The splashing of cows’ milk is a way in which the elders are requesting that God gives those being blessed peace during their journey through life and in their later years.

After the blessing ceremony the children made their way back towards the school where a marquee had been erected and inspiring speeches were given, some from notable attendees such as Area Member of Parliament, Hon. Katoo Ole Metito, the headmaster of Iltilal Primary School, and Jonathan Mutisya, Camp Manager at Finch Hattons, amongst many others.

Maria Lupempe a former traditional birth attendant and ex-cutter, gave narrations of how she used to see women who had gone through FGM suffer terribly during childbirth and swore never to be part of such a practise again.

Several of the students also gave speeches and one teenage boy said that he would never marry a woman who had been through FGM, instead he would look for a partner who was educated.

It will be a very long time until FGM/C is completely stamped out altogether but through the concerted efforts of organisations such as Amref, valuable lessons are being taught and awareness raised that there are other, less demeaning and cruel rites of passage which can be taken – and are far more fitting in today’s society.

Nice Lengete - one of the main organisers of the FGM/C event held in the Iltilal community

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