More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is concentrated, according to UNICEF. 

Across many cultures globally, FGM/C is considered a rite of passage for girls transitioning into womanhood.  Although countries like Kenya have outlawed activities such as FGM and early marriage that deter girls from completing basic education, the practice has been continued. 

FGM is particularly widespread in rural parts of Kenya, where 90 percent of girls are subjected to the practice, compared to 9.3 percent in urban areas. 

Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP) aligned with a local nonprofit organization, Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP), in a rural part of Kenya where FGM is particularly widespread, Tharaka Nithi County, to create an alternative rite of passage (ARP) program. 

The idea of an alternate rite of passage was borne from TWWP founder Aniceta Kiriga in the late 1990s. She created a program which reached out to adolescent and teenage girls and taught them about women’s health and hygiene, sexual health and relationships, human rights, and the risks of FGM. 

The week-long program, which is for girls between the ages of 10 and 16, culminates in a ceremony at the end, which all parents, teachers, friends and the community at large attend. This ceremony feeds off many aspects of the traditional ceremony where people celebrate by singing and dancing and provide tokens of gratitude such gifts and food. But instead of being cut, the girls cut cake. 

Another key aspect of the ARP program is encouraging girls to continue their education. Traditionally, once a girl has undergone FGM/C, they are considered a woman and ripe for marriage and childbearing. And in a traditionally patriarchal society, it is not deemed appropriate for adolescent girls to continue their schooling once they have become a woman.

In rural Africa only 39 percent of girls attend secondary school, and fewer than 15 percent graduate from high school. Both WGEP and TWWP are working to change this by providing scholarships and bursaries to keep underprivileged girls from hard-to-reach areas in Kenya and Senegal in school. 

One woman who heard about the ARP program was Rebecca Gatiiria Mutiiria. Rebecca is a widower in her forties and the mother of six children (five girls and one boy). She lives in Karethani Village near Gatunga Town in Tharaka. She is an illiterate subsistence farmer. 

At the tender age of 12, Rebecca underwent a traditional rite of passage ceremony into womanhood, where they cut her genitalia. Generally, these ceremonies take place in the morning but as there were so many that day (Rebecca was the 14th girl that day), Rebecca was only cut at 1 pm in the afternoon. Rebecca recalls the day being filled with fear and pain. After much suffering during and following the procedure, when Rebecca feared for her life, she vowed to never let her daughters go through what she went though. 

Shortly after recovering, Rebecca dropped out of school due to finances and was married. When a pregnant Rebecca discovered the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) program and ceremony, she immediately signed her firstborn daughter, Purity Gatwiri, up. 

Now three of her five daughters have gone through the ARP program. And Rebecca’s eldest, Purity Gatwiri, has become the first girl in her family and entire village to attend university. She is studying land survey as she is keen to protect people in her community against land claims.  Purity Gatwiri has even helped her mother get a title for the land her husband owned and on which she lives in her own name. 

“If not for my mom’s hard and industrious work, I don’t think we would be this far. She has faced every challenge to make sure her children don’t go through what she went through. She struggled to pay our school fees and encouraged us to read,” recalls Purity Gatwiri. “If my mom didn’t take the initiative, my life could be even more miserable than hers because I could have passed through that rite of passage. I could be married now, and my destiny would be destroyed.”

Client: Obama Foundation
Partner: Women’s Global Education Project
Subject: Rebecca Mutiiria & Purity Gatwiri Mutiiria
Location: Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya

Producer/Director: Morgana Wingard
 Ben Stamper
Project Manager: Lisa Stewart
Composer: Aled Roberts
Sound Design: Matt James

Narrators: Rebecca & Purity Gatwiri Mutiiria
 Rebecca Mutiiria
Purity Gatwiri: Yvonne Mukami




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