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.
That strength was no doubt part of what her village elders saw when, in 2009, 10 years after Leng’ete escaped her own circumcision, they chose her and a young man from her village to participate in a peer education program sponsored by AMREF.
One of 50 Kenyan initiatives of the health-focused NGO, the peer program focused on reproductive rights, HIV education and, yes, the harms of FGM. “Nice took the call to action to go back to the community and expand what you’ve learned very seriously,” says Meadowcroft.
That meant ongoing, informal talks to share what she’d learn with women and girls, who she says were easy to approach and open to listening. Harder to convince were the village elders. She lobbied them for a year before she gained permission to talk to the Moran — men in their mid-teens and 20s who traditionally live in the bush and protect the Masai community and livestock. They were a key group to get onboard against FGM because they are allowed to have multiple sexual partners and are the community’s future leaders (“The ones who will marry young girls,” Leng’ete explains).
Once she got permission to address the Moran, she started with the importance of condom usage and protection against HIV and eased into the idea of abandoning FGM. It didn’t happen immediately, but the young men were eventually convinced. “After one year they accepted me and I was given an ‘esiere,’ a black walking stick,” Leng’ete says. The gift, which symbolizes leadership, is normally reserved for men.