At just 8-years-old, Nice Nailantei Leng’ete and her older sister ran away from their village in Kenya to escape “the cut,” a euphemism used to describe the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Now 27, Nailantei Leng’ete is changing the lives of thousands of young girls by educating village elders about the dangers of FGM.
In the Maasai tribe, which Nailantei Leng’ete was born into, the “cutting ceremony is a celebration that transforms girls into women and marks daughters as eligible brides,” as stated in the New York Times. Had she not escaped, Nailantei Leng’ete would have been held down by some of the older women and her clitoris would have been severed. Many girls who have undergone FGM faint from the blood-loss and some even die during the procedure.
“Growing up, I used to attend these circumcision ceremonies and I could see a lot of pain,” Nailante Leng’ete said in an interview with Health. “All the girls from my own village, after they were circumcised, they had to drop out of school, and be married to old men – people who were not even of their choice… They’re considered women because they have undergone circumcision. But again, these are just still children.”
Nailantei Leng’ete and her sister woke at 4 a.m. on the morning that they would have been “cut.” Rather than shower with the cold water that was supposed to act as an anesthetic, the girls climbed a tree and hid until it was light, then walked 70 km to their aunt’s home. They were found a week later by their uncle and were beaten as a punishment for their defiance.
The following year, Nailantei Leng’ete was able to escape “the cut” once more, but this time her sister was not so lucky. Her sister had been so afraid of being beaten again that she decided to stay and undergo the mutilation. Nailantei Leng’ete eventually told her grandfather that she did not want to be circumsized and after a lot of begging, he chose to honor her request. She’d been saved from “the cut,” but that also meant that she would be ostracized.
“Families wouldn’t let me play with their daughters,” she told the New York Times. “Everyone saw me as a bad example, someone who disrespected her family and went against the ways of the community.”
Although she was able to save herself, Nailantei Leng’ete will never forget that her sister was forced to go through with the procedure. While her sister was raising children of her own, Nailantei Leng’ete became the first girl in her village to go to high school. She explained to the New York Times that when the younger girls would admire her uniform, it inspired her to encourage them to escape the cut as well.
She started a program called Amref Health which travels from village to village in an effort to change the culture. Over the past seven years, the organization has helped to save over 15,000 young girls from FGM.
“No girl had been courageous enough before to challenge the status quo, to challenge men,” Douglas Meritei, an elder in the Maasai community, told the New York Times.
Despite her opposition to the Maasai practice of genital mutilation, Nailantei Leng’ete is proud of her culture.
“It’s just the cut that’s wrong,” she said to the New York Times. “All the other things – the blessings, putting on the traditional clothes, dancing, all that – that’s beautiful. But whatever is harmful, whatever brings pain, whatever takes away the dreams of our girls – let’s just do away with that.”
TIME Magazine recently named Nice Nailantei Leng’ete as one of the 100 most influential people of 2018. She has done amazing things so far with the program, but the war against FGM is only just beginning.
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