Nice Nailantei Leng'ete escaped her own planned circumcision at age 8, and she committed to save others, too. Now, at 22, she's working with her Masai community and others in Kenya to implement alternative rites of passage programs in which more than 800 girls have taken part so far.
These images show Leng'ete's efforts to educate and empowerment young girls and honor their culture, while saving them from the harm of female genital mutilation. As she puts it, "The first thing is respect. You need to respect everyone and you need to be a keen listener. You don't judge them. You make sure the answers are coming from them." Read her story here.
Nice Nailantei Leg'ete's story — you can find it in materials of AMREF, the health NGO she works for, and in the narrative that grounds her TEDx Talks and remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative — is about this young woman's commitment not just to save herself, but to protect other girls from female genital mutilation.
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 range 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, which must be surgically reopened for sex and childbirth. It's normally performed without anesthesia on girls under the age of 15. 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.
Nailantei escaped a planned circumcision as a child. "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." Now a project coordinator for AMREF's Alternative Rites of Passage program, she helps communities plan coming-of-age ceremonies without female genital mutilation.
Leng'ete now counts 800 girls who have avoided FGM through the alternative rites of passage programs that she has spearheaded.
Leng'ete says Masai communities that want their young women to experience coming-of-age rituals — complete with song, dance and education — without FGM are now approaching her.
Lenge'ete lobbied her village's elders 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 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 wasn't fast, but it was effective. "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. In 2011, her community as a whole — with the support of women and girls, elders and Moran alike — agreed to reject FGM.
Lenge'ete emphasizes the community-wide benefits of ending FGM. After all, she says, to forego the procedure means girls are more likely to wait on marriage and become economically independent in ways that bring unique benefits to the larger group.
Lenge'ete's success reflects the WHO's assessment that when it comes to female circumcision, coercive, punitive measures don't work, and AMREF's belief that communities have to "make a collective decision to abandon FGC and embrace alternative rights of passage."
When it comes to talking to communities about alternatives to FGM, "The first thing is respect," Lenge'ete says. "You need to respect everyone, and you need to be a keen listener. You don't judge them. You make sure the answers are coming from them."
Lenge'ete dismisses critics who say to give up FGM is to reject traditional culture or embrace Western values. "We love our culture. It's only some practices that we don't want," she says. "That's the beauty of alternative rites of passage. The culture is still there — just not the cut."