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In Kenya, a refuge from female circumcision

The Tasaru Girls Rescue Center offers girls an alternative rite of passage to the deep-rooted cultural practice, also known as FGM.

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Changing culture: Masai women in Kenya's Kajiado district take part in a play about AIDS and female circumcision in December.

Sadra Gaetke/NEWSCOM

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Five years ago, when Millicent was 13 years old, her father told her it was time to leave school and get married. But first, he said, the Masai adolescent must be circumcised.

Millicent had her own ideas; she had learned at a recent village workshop about the dangers of female circumcision and early marriage. But her family was unsympathetic. "I was circumcised, your mother was circumcised," her grandmother told Millicent. Fighting back tears, she explains, "In my community, it is difficult for a girl who is not circumcised to get married."

Today, after a cousin who helped her run away, Millicent lives at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center in Narok. There, she has continued her schooling and received an alternative rite of passage – part traditional rituals, part health class – which she hopes will allow her to be accepted by her community, if not her family, in the future.

"If I hadn't come here, I would be a mother of two or three children by now," says Millicent, now 18. "My community should understand, by not getting married early, I can get a better education, and a job to earn money for my family. For now," she looks out the door at the girls in the garden of the shelter, "this is my family."

Female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM) is persistent throughout the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, despite research showing it contributes to thousands of miscarriages and maternal deaths each year.

Changing an entire culture – particularly a very distinctive one, such as the Masai people's – can be a difficult process even in a fairly well-off and well-educated country like Kenya. The key ingredient, activists say, is the consent of the people who find meaning from that culture.

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