Sr. Ephigenia Gachiri with this year’s graduates of the Christian rite of passage. Gachiri developed a rite-of-passage ritual based on the RCIA program as an alternative to a cultural ritual rite that involves female genital mutilation. Photo courtesy of Sr. Evanne Hunter

Building a safe haven for Kenyan girls at risk

By  Julia Swist, Youth Speak News
  • February 12, 2016

TORONTO - Life is very different for the girls at the Abundant Life Centre in Kenya when compared to the students at Toronto’s Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School.

In Kenya, girls from the age of about 14 to 17 years old — the same age as the Toronto high schoolers — are culturally pressured to participate in a rite of passage ritual that involves genital mutilation. It is a painful ritual that leads to many health risks, but if girls refuse to take part they are shamed by their community.

The Abundant Life Centre, about 60 km away from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, is a safe haven for girls at risk. The centre serves as a community meeting place for teams of informed trainers to spread their knowledge to the community about the dangers of the practice, especially to remote areas where the practice is so embedded into the culture that it continues to be the norm. At the centre, victims have the opportunity to seek refuge and the support and counselling that they need.

“(The students) were shocked to learn about it... to see what it is and what the implications are,” said Sr. Evanne Hunter, provincial superior of the Loretto Sisters. “But I think they are happy to maybe be a part of helping to eradicate the practice and also to support the people who are working to do that.”

Hunter said the Abundant Life Centre was the brain child of Sr. Ephigenia Gachiri, whose life ministry has been to work towards ending the practice of female genital mutilation.

“For over 17 years, Sr. Ephigenia has been working on this and has trained teams of people to go out to their rural communities and train them about this,” said Hunter. “But because it is a traditional ritual rooted in the culture of the people, they don’t want to give it up.”

Each year, Loretto Abbey fundraises about $20,000 for a charity of their choice. As Loretto Abbey’s designated charity this year, throughout the year students will hold a number of fundraising activities to raise money for the centre to offset the costs of solar panels to help reduce energy costs, for medical needs, to purify water and allow people the necessity of hot water.

The centre will also continue to further research the practice and develop culturally appropriate materials to be used by trainers to educate and spread awareness, trying to develop more ways for people to better understand the consequences of female genital mutilation through charts and easy to follow visuals.

(Swist, 16, is a Grade 12 student at Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School in Toronto, Ont.)

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