She's Fighting Female Circumcision

This 22-year-old from Kenya saved herself, and now she's offering alternative rites of passage to others.

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Against all odds, the pleas were effective and Leng'ete avoided the procedure. Thanks to her boarding school's geographically diverse group of students, she was largely shielded from the social shame that comes with being uncircumcised in communities where the practice is expected and required for marriage. But she was haunted by what she'd narrowly escaped.

"At that time I was young, but I still wanted to help other girls," she says. "In my village, I saw girls leaving school after they were cut. And I saw some dying. I was like, when I grow up I want to change this.".

A Dangerous and Deeply Entrenched Practice

The consequences Leng'ete talks about aren't exaggerated. The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation, or FGM, as "procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons." Techniques ranging from a "prick" to total removal of the clitoris, to stitching the labia to create a seal that leaves only a small hole for urination and menstrual fluid and must be surgically reopened for sex and childbirth. It's normally performed without anesthesia on girls under the age of 15. And it's risky. Severe bleeding, cysts, infections and infertility as well as potentially deadly complications in childbirth can result.

An estimated 3 million girls in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are at risk for the procedure annually, according to WHO calculations.

FGM is illegal in Kenya and in 23 other African countries. But the practice is widely associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are "clean" and "beautiful" after removal of body parts that are considered "male" and "unclean." FGM is often a key part of the coming-of-age rituals that are considered necessary for girls to become adult and responsible members of society.

So it's no surprise that, despite having been deemed a human rights violation by the WHO and the subject of countless statements, resolutions and global strategies by the United Nations, UNICEF and other organizations, it persists. To end such a practice may require something more personal.

The Call to Action

That's where Leng'ete, now a project manager for AMREF's Alternative Rites of Passage program, which helps communities plan coming-of-age ceremonies without FGM, comes in.

"What's remarkable about Leng'ete is that she's so quiet. She's not jumping up and down screaming, but her message comes across loud and clear. I think she has a deep strength inside herself," says AMREF Executive Director Lisa Meadowcroft.

Ending Female Genital Mutilation: Photos

When alternative rites of passage replace circumcision, "the culture is still there -- just not the cut."