Money from Kenyan bracelets will help antimutilation campaign for Voices of Hope nonprofit

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 11, 2013 

On Rachael Tengbom's last trip to Kenya, she met a Maasai girl about the same age as her daughters.

But unlike Tengbom's teenagers, who are busy with school and activities, the 14-year-old Maasai girl was busy raising the three young children she's borne since being married at age 9.

Tengbom, a native of the Maasai tribe who now lives in Kennewick, has worked for several years trying to change the way girls and women are treated in Maasai culture through her nonprofit organization called Voices of Hope. In particular, the group is working to end the practice of female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, which involves young girls' genitals being altered or removed for no medical reason.

Toward that end, the nonprofit is raising money for two goals -- one to support its antimutilation work and another to build a safe haven where Maasai girls can live, prepare for college and train as leaders for the next generation of girls.

Now through March 31, the nonprofit will give a beaded bracelet made by women in Kenya to anyone who donates $100 to the antimutilation campaign. Donations can be made through www.voicesofhopeafrica.org.

"When somebody wears (a bracelet), it raises awareness of our students," Tengbom said.

The bracelets are intended in part to recognize "International Day of Zero Tolerance," a worldwide awareness-raising event by the World Health Organization to call attention to the practice. The awareness day was Wednesday.

Various forms of the procedure are carried out in numerous countries in Africa and the Middle East, and the World Health Organization estimates 140 million women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation.

The procedure has no known health benefits for women, and can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating as well as cysts, infections, infertility and complications in childbirth, a WHO fact sheet said.

The money raised from the bracelets will support Voices of Hope's efforts to stop female genital mutilation, which include sponsoring Maasai girls who leave their communities to go to school and get jobs.

Tengbom said about 98 percent of Maasai girls undergo female genital mutilation, a cultural practice intended as a rite of passage into adulthood and believed to inhibit women's sexual desires and the possibility they may be unfaithful to their husbands.

She believes that can be changed by educating young women and training them to be leaders who will pass on the knowledge they gain to other girls and women at home.

"Change will come from educating and empowering women," she said. "When you help us educate one girl, maybe she will be the one to make the change."

But that takes resources, and Tengbom can't reach every girl as fast as is desired. One girl who was on the waiting list for Voices of Hope's leadership training program underwent female genital mutilation and was married off, Tengbom said.

"We have lost so many before," she said.

She said more girls can be helped once the nonprofit builds a safe house and learning center on land it owns in Kenya. Voices of Hope needs to raise $300,000 toward the construction. The building will house 40 girls at a time. The program overall has graduated 41 girls since 2006.

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @mduplertch

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