For Massai girls, female genital mutilation, or “the cut” has been a rite of passage for hundreds of years. When it was Nice Nailantei Leng’ete’s turn, she ran away. Twice.
“I think why I stood up when I was eight years old was just saying that this is not something I wanted to undergo, is because of the pain of seeing my friends undergoing,” she said. “If you talk of pain, I have seen it with my own eyes. I didn’t have my friends back in class because after their circumcision, they are all married.”
After the cut, Leng’ete says a girl is seen as a woman no matter how young she is and thought to be ready for marriage.
Leng’ete, an orphan, convinced her grandfather to let her forgo the ritual but saving herself wasn’t enough. She hid other young women from “the cut” and was shunned for it.
“Circumcision mostly happens at the age of eight, 10, 12 or sometimes 14. It depends on your physical appearance.”
Growing up, she eventually found her own way and was the first girl in her village to get a higher education. After graduating high school, the NGO AMREF Health Africa came to her village and because she spoke English, was picked for a sexual health education program.
Leng’ete made it her mission to convince the men in the village to end the grizzly ritual.
“It was not easy because as a woman who has not even undergone circumcision, I was seen as a bad example in my village. They saw that I disrespected my community.” Leng’ete says her gender was the biggest barrier.
“It’s never easy for a woman to talk in front of men because it’s not allowed.”
Leng‘ete says she learned a lot about patience. It took two years to have conversations with village elders and another three to convince them that the village would be healthier and wealthier if girls went to school, married later and gave birth without the complications cutting can cause.
So how did she convince them? By taking a holistic approach with all stakeholders.
“We are saying, ‘Fathers and sons, let’s talk about this issue. It’s an important issue with mothers and daughters. Let’s talk about this issue. Cultural leaders, political leaders, governments – because when I talk to one group and I don’t talk to the other group, there’s no way we’ll have an alternative rite of passage because it’s a community-led movement.”
In 2014, after years of conversations with Leng’ete, village elders not only abandoned “cutting” but as an alternative rite of passage, replaced it with education.
The 27-year-old who lives in Kenya is expanding her work with AMREF Health Africa to other countries in Africa. She hopes to see an end to the practice by 2030.
It’s estimated that Leng’ete has already saved 15,000 girls from “the cut” and subsequent child marriage.
She was named by Time Magazine in 2018 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
WATCH: Kenyan activist saves thousands of girls from female genital mutilation
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