When they were around eight years old, Nice Leng’ete and her sister ran away from their Maasai village to avoid the female genital mutilation (FGM) ceremony that would signify them as women. Nice felt in her heart that this ceremony was wrong for her, but she could never have predicted how this decision would change her entire community 10 years later.
FGM refers to “all procedures involving the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia” for non-medical reasons. It is internationally considered to be a violation of human rights. The pain of removing what is considered to be the most sensitive part of the female body is enough to kill some of the women who undergo the procedure. It can cause many complications later on in life, especially during childbirth.
In the Maasai community of Kenya, like in many parts of Africa, the ceremony of female circumcision was a “celebration” that transformed girls into women and made them eligible brides. This ritual is deeply ingrained in the culture of many communities in Africa, and despite the medical harm that it imposes on young girls, it has been practiced on millions of women.
In these communities, men – educated or not – have the ultimate power. They believe that women are not women until they have experienced FGM, and they shame entire families who do not force their girls to go through the ritual. After Nice ran away for the second time to avoid the practice, Nice’s grandfather took time to listen to her reasoning for doing so. He allowed her to do as she wished, but her community still ostracized her.
“Everyone saw me as a bad example, someone who disrespected her family and went against the ways of the community,” said Nice.
Nice tried to persuade her sister to avoid the practice with her, but her sister ultimately gave in. At just 12 years old, she was married off to an abusive older man and went on to have three children with him. Meanwhile, Nice became the first girl in her village to attend high school, which caught the attention of some of the younger girls, who sought out Nice’s help to protect them from the circumcision ceremony.
Nice went to the elders of the community and tried to bargain with them in the hopes of stopping the ritual. They refused, but agreed to send her to a workshop on adolescent and sexual health run by Amref, a Kenyan health organization. After attending this workshop, she again approached the elders and expressed to them her belief that the information she learned needed to be heard by the entire community. They refused again, but gave her permission to educate the Morans – the young men who assisted the elders.
None of the young men stayed to listen. For two years, Nice persisted in her efforts to educate her community, and gradually men came to learn. The topics started expanding from FGM’s consequences to HIV and the prevention of teenage pregnancy. Nice predicted that if girls were not circumcised, they would be healthier, which could in turn affect the community positively. Most of the men were won over by her knowledge on the physical consequences of FGM, and after nearly four years of dialogue, her community abandoned the practice of genital mutilation.
Although Nice fought to end FGM in her community, she felt that the other things that went along with the ritual, like the blessings, the traditional clothes, and the dancing, were beautiful and should not be stopped. She and the elders planned a different kind of ceremony for the girls. The year after FGM was abandoned, the number of girls in school soared.
The elders of the community recognized Nice’s work and she was given an esiere, a black walking stick that symbolizes leadership in the community. Nice went from being completely ostracized by the community to being given the highest seat of Maasai power.
Nice’s campaign spread to many neighboring villages, and in 2014, the centuries-old oral constitution about FGM, which ruled over 1.5 million Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, was formally abandoned.
Now, young girls learn about sexual health and adolescent development before partaking in traditional ceremonies that include dancing and singing. In just seven years, Nice’s actions have helped 15,000 girls avoid genital mutilation; she now works for Amref, the organization that gave her the tools to educate her community, and later, overturn a rule that has harmed so many.
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