Montrealer seeks to end female genital mutilation by educating girls, elders

In just three years, a former Montrealer helped end the 2,500-year-old tradition of female genital mutilation in one Kenyan village.

Girls are seen as unfit to marry until they undergo the procedure in some villages

Despite a government ban on female genital mutilation in 2011, the long-standing tradition remains a rite of passage, particularly among poor families in rural areas. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

In just three years, a former Montrealer helped end the 2,500-year-old tradition of female genital mutilation in one Kenyan village.

"I wouldn't need a plane to go back ­— I was flying so high on this news," said Sayydah Garrett, the founder of the Pastoralist Child Foundation, which seeks to mobilize women against the practice.

Garrett, a Vanier College alumna, spoke with CBC's Daybreak about her work in Kenya.

Her foundation has been working with locals northern Kenya, to try to change mindsets.

When she first visited Namayiana village in Kenya's Samburu County three years ago, Garrett said the subject of genital mutilation was taboo.

"Women don't talk to men about this, and whatever the village elders say goes."

But after her work there, Garrett said village woman have decided to completely stop the practice of cutting girls.

Around 90 per cent of women cut

The UN estimates more than a quarter of Kenyan girls are cut before puberty. Garrett said that for the tribes she works with, it's closer to 90 per cent.

Seeing how common this practice was on a visit to Kenya several years ago compelled Garrett to start the foundation. She got a grant from UNICEF and began working with six villages.

She said people in these communities aren't aware of the effects of this mutilation.

Despite the practice being illegal, it continues as a rite of passage to womanhood. Only after a girl is cut is she considered acceptable for marriage.

A razorblade and no anesthesia

Female genital mutilation is also known as female circumcision, but Garrett said that term sanitizes the reality of the procedure.

"Basically there's an old woman called a circumciser who lines up girls on the ground. Girls are held down by other women, their legs are spread and their clitoris is cut off with a razor blade — no anesthesia. So you if can image the pain, the screaming, the blood everywhere."

The foundation seeks to establish alternative rites of passage to womanhood.

Sayydah Garrett is the founder and president of the Pastoralist Child Foundation, which is trying to end the practice of female genital mutilation. (CBC)

This means educating girls, as wells as boys and elders in the village, about the harmful effects of the practice. Locals deliver the workshops.

 "The young men who are coming to our workshops are going out and saying, 'We should marry girls who are not cut.'"

But trying to change the traditions in patriarchal tribes hasn't always been easy. The foundation's director has received death threats.

Gynocologists suggest alternative

In February two U.S. gynecologists wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics that allowing small surgical nicks to girls' genitalia might be preferable to trying to ban the practice.

Garrett doesn't agree with that approach.

"When I heard about it I really thought this would set us back. A nick, a cut, a pinhole — I don't care what you call it, I think it's totally unacceptable."