By Esther Essie Wambui
“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation.” While this may sound cliché, it is easily understood within development circles and by people who grow up in developing countries, where it is used to encourage equal access to education and other opportunities for girls as boys.
If there were a perfect exemplar of this phrase, then it would be Nice Nailantei Leng’ete, a 26-year-old Kenyan woman who first spoke out against FGM at the age of eight. With all odds seemingly stacked against her, Nice challenged the attitudes of her Maasai tribe in order to end a harmful traditional practice. Defying culture, she ran away from home multiple times to avoid being circumcised.
Nice, now Amref Health Africa’s anti-FGM Advocate recently came to Canada. She shared her story at various forums in Toronto and spoke with Canadian Parliamentarians in Ottawa to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC). We met in Toronto for an interview.
Nice grew up in Kenya, in the small village of Kimana at the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 1998, after both her parents died within a year of each other, Nice was sent to live with her uncle. After joining school, she discovered that not every girl in Kenya underwent FGM/C. So when her uncle and grandfather decided it was time for Nice to undergo the cut, she ran away from home, narrowly avoiding being circumcised. She continued to run away until they gave up.
Eventually, Nice encountered Amref Health Africa working with the Maasai, delivering health services and helping them drill water wells. This had over the years earned the organization the community’s trust and respect, fundamental values for any outsider working to change traditional attitudes towards FGM/C.
Through her own efforts and with the support of Amref Health Africa, Nice began educating elders, boys and the young men (Morans) in her community with new messages about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Over time, the Morans accepted her as a leader and in return, she has been able to reach many more women, girls and Morans with her conviction to eliminate the traditional practice of FGM/C and replace it with alternative rites of passage for young girls.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting – few facts
FGM/C refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. Procedures are mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and adolescence, and occasionally on adult women.
It is an extreme form of violence against women and girls, recognized as such by many human rights treaties and internationally agreed documents. Those include the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 2015 FGM/C was included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under Target 5.3, “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.”
Approximately 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM/C, with more than 3 million girls estimated to be at risk of FGM/C annually. And, despite it being outlawed in many countries, this dangerous, life-threatening and extremely painful ritual continues to be practiced and is considered by some communities as the transition from girl to woman.
Nice explains that beyond causing serious health problems, after being ‘cut’, girls become more vulnerable to men as they are now considered ‘real women’, ready for marriage, no matter how young. As a woman, a girl is also expected to leave school, which leads to fewer opportunities for girl, creating major barriers to equity.
“I personally have seen too many women and girls, too many friends, have their dreams taken away from them. Traditional harmful practices have impacted their lives, and they can never get those days back. And this needs to change.” She observes, “I will continue to fight until no Maasai girl has to undergo FGC. I will continue to demand that girls can grow into women without being circumcised. Every young girl in Kenya can become the woman of her dreams. I am, for sure.”
The role of AMREF Health Africa
Trained with the peer education skills to bring about change in her community, Nice has been working as a project officer with Amref Health Africa’s Alternative Rites of Passage program.
A major challenge in the fight against FGM/C stems from the fact that the Maasai are a traditional patriarchal tribe. Women have virtually no voice in Maasai society. They are subject to the intricate hierarchy of the powerful men in the clan – the elders and the Morans. To make any substantial change within the community, these groups must be involved.
For most girls, the coming of age ritual represents the only real, significant moment in her life where she takes centre stage and is recognized by her family, relatives, peers and fellow clan members. ‘Uncut’ girls are often rejected by their peers, and refused marriage by men. So it was particularly significant and courageous for Nice to run away when her family wanted her to undergo circumcision.
Alternative Rite of Passage
Among the Maasai and other nomadic tribes in East Africa, the transition from girl to woman often takes place through a four-day ritual in which the girls are dressed in their finest clothes and adorned with their most beautiful jewellery. They sing traditional songs and mothers give them life lessons including how to be a good wife and mother.
Unfortunately, for many years, the not-so-beautiful part of the ritual – which involved cutting away the clitoris and labia in these girls, represented the centrepiece of this important rite of passage in the life of a Maasai girl. This is the part of the ritual that many advocates fight to have eliminated.
“Alternative rite of passage (ARP) retains the traditional rituals but removes the practice of cutting. It combines traditional ceremony with broader sexual and reproductive health education.” Nice clarifies.
And so it was that Nice began dialogue with the tribal elders who over a two-year period were convinced of the advantages of eliminating female genital mutilation/cutting. With the elders’ approval, young men were approached, learning that it was alright to marry a woman who had not undergone the traditional practice.
This was the beginnings of the alternative rites of passage, which the Maasai designed. The girls participate in a three-day session about sexual and reproductive health, self-confidence and human rights. This is a critical part of the ritual as it promotes the girls’ feelings of self-worth in view of their lower status compared to boys. In addition, girls are encouraged to continue with school and the elders, mothers and fathers, to invest in the girls and help them stay in school.
Message to diaspora Kenyans
Nice thinks that Kenyans abroad often underestimate and thus fail to capitalize on their place as role models. She insists that buying things for relatives & friends won’t ease dependence on financial remittances. Instead, she nudges diaspora to get involved at the local level, particularly in talking to and guiding the youth.
“Fund education for the needy and also start projects that help get people out of poverty.” She urges.
“To end FGM/C, leadership is needed at every level with partners both international & local.” Nice adds.
A recognized community leader
Today, Nice is a respected community advocate and a recognized global youth leader. A recipient of the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, as well as the 2015 Inspirational Woman of the Year Award from the Kenyan Ministry of Devolution.
Because of the success of the ARP program, many other communities now want to work with Nice to create similar ceremonies for their own girls.
Amref Health Africa says that they have to date helped more than 10,000 girls avoid FGM/C in Loitoktok, Magadi, Samburu in Kenya and Kilindi in Tanzania.
Working together with other partners including the governments of Kenya and Canada, influential political and Maasai cultural leaders, they have brought about significant change.
By Esther “Essie” Wambui with extra Photos courtesy Amref Health Africa – Canada