Safe Haven Opens for Women in Kenya

News  Reuters. Tuesday, 9 April 2002.

Matthew J. Rosenberg

In the heart of Kenya, Mary Solio found refuge from a forced marriage but not from female circumcision—two cultural traditions that some women in the Maasai tribe are working to change.

Most of the 61 Maasai girls who arrived last week at the V-Day Safe House for Girls came for a short course on the consequences of female circumcision.

But 14 of them, including 16-year-old Solio, have sought refuge in the haven that was formally opened Monday by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, the widely produced play about women and their bodies.

A year ago, Solio's parents forced her to undergo circumcision, a Maasai right of passage. Within weeks she was married to a man more than three times her age, another common Maasai tradition. Four months later, she fled into the forest, alone and—though she didn't know it at the time—pregnant.

She spent the next seven months at a girls school outside this small dusty town, about 70 miles west of Nairobi, fighting off attempts by her husband and family to force her home. Two weeks ago, her baby was born.

Now she lives at the safe house, where her baby will be cared for while she attends school.

The project was launched by Agnes Pareyio, a 45-year-old Maasai women who began visiting villages throughout southwestern Kenya a decade ago to educate women about the dangers of female circumcision.

As a member of a local village council, Pareyio noticed that many girls were dropping out of school in their early teens and discovered it was because of circumcision and marriage.

When the girls get circumcised, they are considered women, they can't go to school anymore, she said. ... If they are married, they must stay home and take care of their husbands.

In Maasai circumcision, the clitoris is removed, usually without anesthesia. Some women bled to death during the procedure, and others were infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, because the razor blades are unclean, Pareyio said.

She set out with a large plastic model of a vagina to educate to older women and their daughters about the dangers of female circumcision.

Ensler met Pareyio on a trip to Kenya two years ago and said it was clear the Maasai woman's pure will was changing this culture ... freeing women.

Ensler began financing Pareyio's campaign, first buying her a vehicle so she could visit more villages, then providing the $65,000 for the safe haven—two cinder block buildings with rooms for the girls, offices and a cafeteria. Another is in the works.

We don't want to be some outsiders coming in here and telling people what to do, how to behave, said Ensler. The only way things really change is when people from that culture work to change it.

An estimated 130 million women, most of them in Africa, have been subjected to ritual genital cutting. The number is believed to grow by up to 2 million each year. The procedure ranges from clipping or burning the clitoris to cutting off all the outer labia and sewing closed the remaining tissue, leaving only a tiny opening.

The practice is illegal in 18 countries, nine of them in Africa. It was outlawed in Kenya earlier this year but is still widespread.

Although figures are not available on the number of Kenyan Maasai women circumcised each year, Pareyio says she has seen attitudes begin to change among the tribe, which has herded cattle in East Africa for generations.

Circumcision is very much part of Maasai culture, it will not change in a quick amount of time. Pareyio said. But look here today, we have 60 girls who will not be circumcised, who will not be forced into marriage. That is a change.


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