Isinya, Kenya — Clutching a Bible in one hand and a walking stick in the other, Pastor Stephen Lenku Tipatet traverses the plains of Kajiado County, fighting female circumcision and propounding on the Christian gospel.
The region is the homeland of the Maasai, an indigenous community in Southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The community has resisted modernity and Western influences and clings to a traditional way of life, including the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.
On Monday (Feb. 6), during International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the U.N. sponsored awareness day, Tipatet visited a rescue center along with four other pastors. There they ministered to five girls housed there.
A clergyman from the Presbyterian Outreach Mission Church, Tipatet often leads pastors to secret locations for girls who had fled their homes to escape FGM.
"The girls were rescued during the last school holidays," Tipatet said. "We went to tell them that there is still a future for them and they should remain focused on their dreams," said the 52-year-old pastor in an interview in Isinya, the town where his church is based.
In a painful surgery, women circumcisers use knives, razors or scissors to remove the labia and/or the clitoris as part of a rite of passage for girls ages 9 to 18.
Kenya banned FGM in 2011, enacting a law that criminalizes the voluntary pursuit, support or promotion of the act, but with increased raids, the practice has gone underground, according to Tipatet.
The practice is carried out by both Muslim and Christian communities, although it predates both religions and is not sanctioned by the Quran or the Bible.
Somalia has highest cases of FGM in Africa; 98 percent of women ages 19 to 49 years have undergone the procedure. Nearly 70 percent of women in Ethiopia and Sudan have been subject to the practice. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women and girls worldwide are FGM survivors.
With backing of the law and biblical teachings, churches, alongside some government efforts, have mounted massive campaigns against the practice, establishing rescue centers for fleeing girls who are often rejected by their families for disobeying the elders.
Joyce Mila, a nursing student at a college in Nakuru, a city west of Nairobi, told of her experience, having fled FGM as a young girl to a rescue center five years ago.
"I think they felt it was the right time to perform the cut on me," she said of her community's elders. "When they tried to force me, I told my teachers and fled, and finally ended up at a rescue center, where I completed my high school."
Mila, like many girls, was rejected by her father for disobeying her family's wish.
She stresses that FGM should be eliminated since it does not add any value to a women's life, contrary to the view held by many in her community.
"When I return home, there are some who jeer at me since they know I rejected the practice," Mila said. "There are those who welcome me. I disregard the jeers because I'm confident that I made the right choice.
Mila said she has now reconciled with her family with the help of a rescue center and church leaders.
In Maasailand, many people in the community consider FGM and early marriage important traditional practices. Just three years ago, a pro-FGM meeting in Kajiado County attracted more than 1,000 women.
Working with over 300 pastors as part of the Kajiado East Pastors Association, Tipatet said the group is trying to educate the community on the dangers of FGM and early marriages.
"We challenge circumcision of girls," he said. "We tell the community it's not biblical."
There have also been some disappointments.
Some families have fought back, threatening traditional curses on those who disrupt their FGM ceremonies or challenge them.
"This has kept away some local campaigners and traditional chiefs, but the church is not deterred," Tipatet said. "We are also making some good progress, although it's still difficult to reach some areas."
The Tasaru Rescue Center near the town of Narok has been facilitating reconciliation ceremonies with the help of the church and village elders. The group rescues, counsels and links girls with schools. It has also been reaching out to parents to educate them about the practice.
Recently it has advanced an alternative rite of passage that seeks to provide girls instruction about marriage, family life, sexual and reproductive health.
But there is no cutting component.