Can Economists Stop Kenya's Maasai From Mutilating Their Girls?

Members of the African tribe believe that if girls are not circumcised, they won't be able to marry or have children. While the violent ritual has been outlawed in Kenya, it is still prevalent. A new international academic project that offers economic incentives to families aims to put paid to female genital mutilation.

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A girl in a Maasai village.
A girl in a Maasai village. Credit: Uri Gneezy
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

A formative event occurred 15 years ago among members of the Maasai tribe in southern Kenya. Lucy Nashaw, 53, one of the most esteemed women in her community, announced that she did not intend to have her 12-year-old daughter circumcised. But how would she be transformed from a girl into a woman? What Maasai man would want to marry an uncut woman? And how would she give birth, since everyone knows that bearing children is impossible among women who are not circumcised? Those were just a few of the questions thrown at Nashaw, with her defiant approach, by members of her community.

But Nashaw, who had been educated in a missionary school, knew that such questions were irrelevant and was determined to spare her daughter the experience she had undergone. The result: Celeyan, her daughter, now 27, became the first Maasai woman in her local tribe not to undergo female circumcision – and in a declarative, even provocative way. Today Celeyan is a nurse, she is married to an engineer, lives in a Maasai community and is the mother of three children.

Lucy Nashaw continues to spearhead opposition in her tribe to female circumcision, formally called female genital mutilation (or FGM) – defined by the World Health Organization as the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to those organs, for non-medical reasons. She has also established a boarding school to which girls can flee and find a haven to avoid FGM. Nashaw’s institution is known among the local Maasai community, but not all girls manage to get there in time.

A case in point is 21-year-old Christine Navianoi. Her father died when she was young, and her mother was left alone to raise Christine and her two sisters and two brothers. One morning during the vacation between the ninth and 10th grades, after Christine had finished breakfast in the family’s mud hut, her mother called to her to come outside. There she saw five women, one of whom as the village’s circumciser. The group forcibly seized her, bound her hands and feet, and cut her on the spot. Christine did not return to school the next month, and her mother tried to marry her off. Finally, after a lengthy struggle in which Christine demonstrated tremendous mental resilience, she was able to stave off the search for a mate and complete high school (a year late). She would like to be a teacher, and is now looking into the possibility of getting a college scholarship.

The thought of the beautiful Christine, with her sad, wise eyes and shy smile, being forced to endure a brutal and violent act like this, and with the collaboration of the person who is supposed to protect her – her mother – is unbearable. She describes now what happened that morning in a subdued tone. She takes my hand when I extend it, but, far from showing weakness, this seems to reflect an effort to console me. Nashaw says she is strong and will get into college. Amen.

To visit the Maasai people, I spent a week accompanying a delegation of behavioral economists headed by Israeli-born Uri Gneezy, a professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. He is conducting a study on the use of economic incentives to help end female circumcision in the tribe. Norwegian economists, with whom he is collaborating on the project, were unable to make the trip but sent a master’s student, Ida Kjorholt, on their behalf.

Also joining us was Israeli documentary filmmaker Barak Heymann, who is making a film about FGM and about Gneezy’s research. On this, the first of many trips that Heymann (from Heymann Brothers Films) will make to the region, he also shot footage for a promotional clip that Gneezy hopes to use in fundraising for his project. Itai Raziel, the cinematographer for both the documentary and the clip, was also part of the delegation, along with Gneezy’s sister, Orit, a former journalist who is now a psychologist.

In 2011, the Kenyan government enacted legislation outlawing FGM, becoming the 22nd African state to do so (Nigeria became the 23rd in 2015). According to a 2009 government survey, 27 percent of Kenyan women undergo genital cutting. The custom is routine among five of the country’s 42 tribes. It’s estimated that 75 percent of women in the Maasai tribe in Kenya, whose members number approximately 840,000 people have been circumcised.

The Maasai, who live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, are a nomadic people that has begun to live in permanent locales during the past few decades. One of the most ancient tribes of East Africa, they are also one of the best known, because they have preserved their traditional clothing, ceremonies, beliefs and way of life in general. Although they are Christians who attend church regularly every Sunday, they continue to practice traditional rituals. Both men and women in the tribe are circumcised, the boys between the ages of 10 and 15, the girls between 12 and 15. Ironically, the 2011 law had the effect of lowering the age among girls, because younger girls are less likely to be aware of the illegality of the practice.

And what does behavioral economics have to do with it? In a 2013 book that Gneezy co-wrote with John List, “The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life,” they explain that in their view, their “discipline [is] fully engaged with the entire spectrum of human emotions, with a laboratory as big as the whole world, and with the capacity to produce results that can change society for the better.”

But in this case, Gneezy and his colleagues – Prof. Alexander Cappelen, Prof. Bertil Tungodden and research student Ranwig Pelech, all from the Norwegian School of Economics, and Gneezy’s wife, Ayelet Gneezy, a professor of marketing at U.C., San Diego – are not out to change the Maasai people’s deeply rooted ways. Their aim, as academics interested in the possibility of altering human behavior by means of economic incentives, is to do away only with one tradition, FGM.

‘Only doing good’

Changing society for the better is precisely the goal of the project being led by these economists, whose research is usually conducted far from their campuses. Thus, next January, at the start of the school year in Kenya, 400 girls aged 8 to 12 will be invited to undergo a medical examination by a local nurse. For this, each girl will receive a payment equal to an average week’s salary – approximately 3,000 Kenyan shillings ($30) – an incentive for their families. As part of the examination, the nurses will record which of the girls has undergone circumcision.

Half of the girls will constitute a control group; they will have a medical exam every December. The other 200 girls will be the research group. Every one of its subjects who has not been circumcised will receive a scholarship of $1,000, which is half the yearly tuition fee for an average boarding school in Kenya. (Most of the schools in the region where the Maasai live are boarding schools, which encourages large families to educate their children, since it means fewer mouths to feed on a daily basis and more room in the small mud huts that constitute their homes.) Girls who have been genitally cut will not receive the scholarship. Girls in both groups will be asked to undergo a checkup ahead of each new academic year, for four years; again, only those not circumcised in the interim will get the scholarship.

Ninth-grade Maasai teenagers at school in southern Kenya.
Ninth-grade Maasai teenagers at school in southern Kenya.Credit: Neta Ahituv

Thus, the researchers’ aim is to provide economic incentives via education to stop FGM – and thus to create a critical mass of girls who do not undergo circumcision and will also attend school, where they will be educated against the practice and learn that they have the right to reject it.

Clearly the project raises many questions and doubts, but Gneezy and his colleagues seem to have answers to all of them. For example, they are asked, what about the unfortunate girls who were circumcised against their will and are now also denied a scholarship?

“We are aware that this is a difficult decision, which will not be beneficial,” Gneezy says. “But we know with certainty that no girl will undergo circumcision because of us and also that no girl will miss school because of us. We are doing only good, the bad is being done by the families themselves. That is our commitment.”

Another question is whether it is possible that that at the conclusion of the educational process, the family will express gratitude for the scholarships but nevertheless have the girl circumcised? The answer to that question lies on the “seam line” between education and FGM. In the schools Maasai girls attend, female circumcision is condemned. When they turn 18, they are legally considered to be adults and their families are forbidden to coerce them in any matter. It’s more than likely that a girl who has spent four years in high school and knows about her rights and about the dangers inherent in FGM will be more capable of resisting her parents if they try to have her genitally cut only at the age of 18.

“The Maasai believe that a girl who is circumcised becomes a woman and only then is accepted in the society as a mature individual,” explains Dr. Gabriel Waari, 38, a Kenyan who works in a clinic in the Maasai village of Kuku. “There is a tremendous knowledge gap between the older and younger generations,” he explains. “The older generation doesn’t understand the issue, the younger generation is far more aware of the dangers and the consequences. We find that it is mainly the mothers who, out of ignorance about the subject, encourage their daughters to undergo circumcision.”

Is the fact that a circumcised woman cannot enjoy sex something that is talked about? Is there awareness of this aspect of FGM?

Waari: “The Maasai are a patriarchal people and the voice of the women is hardly heard. But we are trying to make it widely known that without a clitoris and with part of the labia cut, sex is definitely unpleasant. The scars from the circumcision itself and the emotional trauma it causes mean not only that there is no pleasure from sex, but also that there is fear of sex. Women accept it as something they have to live with, so the subject is hardly mentioned.

“Even today, despite the awareness, there are still many more women who have been circumcised than not, and I don’t think they say that they have been deprived of sexual pleasure. That is not a narrative that enters the public domain, and I imagine that women rarely discuss it among themselves, either. In our campaign, too, we talk less about the sexual pleasure element and concentrate more on the health aspects. That seems to us more effective at this stage.”

Though no real comparison can be drawn between male and female circumcision, the rhetoric we heard from advocates of female circumcision, among the Maasai people we met, resembles somewhat that of the proponents of traditional Jewish circumcision of boys among secular Jews. Eric Lekipaseya, a nurse who works at the clinic with Waari, relates, “We have two sons and a daughter. She is now 11 and we chose not to have her circumcised. People are always telling me that she will have a hard time in school, the other girls will laugh at her, she will be ashamed to shower with her girlfriends, she won’t find a husband. I have no regrets about the decision and I am educating my daughter not to be ashamed but to be proud – it’s the others who should be ashamed.”

It’s clear that for the revolution to end FGM to succeed, the male members of the tribe will need to be convinced. For parents to refuse to have their daughters circumcised, they have to be certain men can be found who will agree to marry them. One individuals working to increase their number is Julius Lemoyan, 37, who goes from village to village among the Maasai, both in Tanzania and in his native Kenya, leading workshops and seminars, and giving talks against FGM and gender-based violence. An anti-FGM activist since 2008, he relates that receptiveness to his message is increasing from year to year.

His story takes on an added dimension when one meets his 78-year-old mother, Nerpokai Lemoyan, who performed circumcisions for 19 years. Her husband died when her son was only a few months old, she tells us, so all the food, clothing and education for him and his three siblings were paid for with the money she earned from her work. She received 6,000 Kenyan shillings (about 230 shekels, or $55) for each one performed, and during her long career she circumcised more than 600 girls.

When Julius launched his campaign against female circumcision eight years ago, after learning about the risks and suffering associated with FGM at a public-health conference he attended, his mother thought he had lost his mind. “I didn’t know how to tell my friends,” she says. “I thought he was not respecting our source of livelihood and our culture. I wondered how our family would be treated because we had the only man in the community who was against circumcision. But gradually I understood that many girls left school because they had been circumcised. I also understood that women who are circumcised suffer from diseases such as AIDS or have complications in childbirth. None of that knowledge existed in my day. Today I understand that I too could have gotten AIDS, because I cut the girls without using gloves.”

These days, Nerpokai proudly carries a circumciser’s certificate that now says, “No to FGM.” She gave away all her cutting equipment to a government inspector, because nowadays the mere possession of such instruments is against the law.

New rite of passage

Our expedition included a visit to a girls’ boarding school called the Rescue Center, which is run by Joash Atambo, an impressive and charismatic young man of 27. “There are 25 girls here, and we provide them with an alternative rite of passage from girlhood to maturity in the form of education,” he says with a glowing smile.

What do you think about economic incentives as a means to eradicate FGM, such as the project being conducted by Uri Gneezy and his associates?

Atambo: “I think it can help, because female circumcision, as I see it, is gender violence that is related to poverty. Some of the families have their daughters circumcised in order to marry them off and receive cattle or sugar in exchange. If you offer a family money so their daughter will attend a boarding school, it will be worth the family’s while not to circumcise her. Empowering women together with giving something to the family for not having the girl cut will be very helpful. It’s obvious that the rate of circumcision will decrease in this way.”

I joined a volleyball game that the girls at the center were playing on an improvised court. At first they shied away from a stranger, but after a while they relaxed and a close, thrilling match followed. The unmediated communication during the game and the glimpse it afforded of the social dynamics among the girls allowed the image of each of them to be imprinted deep within me. I discovered a group of girls who were courageous, cute, mature, childish, polite, industrious and touching. At the conclusion of our visit to the center, the girls acceded to Atambo’s request to sing three songs for us. One, in English, was about the “beautiful person of Africa,” and the other two, in a Maasai dialect, were also on the same theme, according to Atambo’s translation.

The image of the childlike singing and the dancing that accompanied it will stay with me forever.