(The Root) — To hear 22-year-old Nice Nailantei Leng'ete answer questions from across a table, you have to lean in. She's that quiet. When she's chronicling her globally praised work to end female genital mutilation among Kenya's Masai people, she chooses her words deliberately. (Just one example: She prefers the lesser-used phrase "female genital cutting" because it doesn't put those who embrace the practice on the defensive.)
Instead of filling lapses in conversation with chatter, she just sits, with an expression that's a cross between an inquisitive stare and a patient smile.
Leng'ete is bundled in a red trench coat during our interview as she battles an oncoming cold and the aggressive air conditioning of a Washington, D.C., hotel lobby. Makeup-free, slightly slouched and flanked by members of her organization's communications team, she appears more like a teenager trotted out to visit with company than an activist ready to recruit allies for her cause. She could be confused with a freshman at nearby Howard University — a kid whose biggest battles are with housing assignments and final exams.
Looks are deceiving.
'When I Grow Up, I Want to Change This'
Her story — you can find it in materials from 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 the singular cultural savvy, insight and bravery it took to save herself from the deeply entrenched, violent practices of a patriarchal society, and then go on and to do the same for hundreds of other girls.
That story starts when, as an 8-year-old orphan in Kajiado, Kenya, while on a break from boarding school, Leng'ete literally ran away from a circumcision arranged by her uncle for her and her cousins. She made it to her grandfather's home and managed to convince him, an influential elder in her Masai community, to exempt her from the painful and dangerous procedure.
That act of self-protection would mark the beginning of her advocacy.
But how did it even occur to her, as a child, that there was another way? Although every woman she knew in her village had been "cut," she had classmates from other communities who hadn't. Plus, she was terrified of both the physical pain and of what her future would look like on the other side of the ceremony.
"I just told my grandfather I'm not ready for it because I knew I was young, and I knew I was going to cry. I knew once you are circumcised, it means leaving school and being married off," she says.
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.
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.
In 2011, the community as a whole — with the support of women and girls, elders and Moran alike — agreed to reject FGM.
'The Culture Is Still There — Just Not the Cut'
The success didn't stop there. Hired by AMREF that year, Leng'ete now counts 800 girls who have avoided FGM through the alternative rites of passage programs that she has spearheaded. She says other communities that want their young women to experience coming-of-age rituals — complete with song, dance and education — without FGM are now approaching her.
She dismisses critics who say to give up that component is to reject traditional culture or embrace Western values. "We love our culture. It's only some practices that we don't want. That's the beauty of alternative rites of passage. The culture is still there — just not the cut. "
Her 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 FGM and embrace alternative rights of passage."
Leng'ete's unassuming personality might be part of what makes her the right person to start the conversations that inspire those collective decisions. "The first thing is respect," she 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." She's a savvy strategic communicator, doing what it takes to get her message across. That might mean serving as a living example to young girls, proving that you can be uncircumcised, unmarried, educated and do just fine. Or switching her jeans for traditional dress and beads to get on the good side of elders.
Plus, she pitches 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. "Once a girl goes to school and gets a job, you'll find her home on vacation. Once a man is married, he's just gone," she explains. "But a woman is going to remember her family. Everyone wants that."
The sustained effort it takes to deliver these messages is not easy. She conducts up to two educational forums a day, which involves travelling to far-flung villages, all while completing college coursework and planning for a masters degree in public health. "It takes patience," Lenge'ete says.
"But," she adds, in a statement that's obvious to anyone who's seen how effective she is at her work on this deeply personal issue, "I'm a tough girl."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.