"I demand that girls become women without being cut. Every young girl in Kenya and beyond can become the woman of her dreams. I did."
Growing up as a Maasai girl was not easy for me. To be honest, it’s a man’s world. Girls and women are to be seen, but definitely not heard. We are a proud people…proud of our traditions and our identity. Yet, in the process of preserving our culture, we have embraced a system that denies women basic human rights: the right to control her body, the right to an education, to choose to whom and when to marry, and the right to express an opinion. Female genital cutting, although illegal, is commonplace. Girls as young as 10 or 12 are being cut, taken out of school, and married.
I too, would have been one of those girls. If it were not for a series of events that changed my life.
When I was only eight years old, my world was shattered when my parents were devastatingly ripped away from me. Whispers and rumors hinted at a mysterious disease. But I was told nothing. I was eight years old and my life had changed forever. Everything I knew was gone. My home, my security. But, surprising as it may seem, every dark cloud has a silver lining.
Not belonging to a family actually offered me an escape from forceful genital cutting. Sure, my Uncle tried to organize it, to literally beat me into submitting to the cut, but I resisted. I ran away. I listened to that spark of determination that had already started burning in my heart.
A great opportunity came to me in 2008, when my village leaders selected me to be one of the peer educators to be trained by Amref Health Africa’s Nomadic Youth Reproductive Health Project. I learned about the health risks that result from female genital cutting and early marriages, and I began to really understand the importance of sexual health and rights.
But how could I start to pass all this information on? How could I make other girls understand that they too had choices? That they did not have to go through with genital cutting. That we could find ways to ensure that traditional rituals and sexual and health education was being passed on, but without the physical maiming.
I knew that change must come from within the communities. But where to start when the communities were run by men, who did not see, let alone listen, to girls like me? I’m sure many women have faced the challenges of living or working in a male dominated environment. We may have to be brave, stepping out of our comfort zone to fight for what we believe in. But determination can bring us a long way. I’m proof of that.
So, what did I do? I went to the top, of course. To the village elders. I took a deep breath and I started talking. It was difficult and I was nervous. It felt like facing 20 of my grandfathers all at once. But I showed them the respect they deserved and I shared what I had learned during my training with Amref Health Africa. And amazingly they listened. To me, Nice.
The elders were my gateway to the Morans, the men I feared most. These elusive young men spend their time in the bush learning traditional skills. Morans listened only to other men, and often had multiple sexual partners. It was essential to challenge their traditional beliefs and get them on board. After all, they are the community leaders of the future. They will be marrying the young women I am supporting. Without their support, introducing new traditions would have been futile.
Amazingly, thanks to the elders, the Morans eventually accepted me and agreed to see me alone. I won’t lie - it was a tough - but the moment their chief gave me an ‘Esiere’, the black walking stick that symbolizes leadership, I knew that I had been accepted. I helped the Morans understand the need for using condoms, going for treatment for sexually transmitted infections and taking HIV tests. I asked them to support the alternative rites of passage we were introducing for young girls.
Now as a Project Officer with Amref Health Africa’s Alternative Rites of Passage, I travel around Kenya introducing this program to other Maasai tribes. We celebrate young girls coming of age with all the pageantry and tradition of our ancient ritual – just without the cut. We’ve also designed a workshop on sexual and reproductive rights where the girls learn all about their bodies, HIV prevention, their rights and especially, the importance of staying in school.
My journey through the Maasai man’s world was challenging, but empowering. My driving force was always the determination that women be seen as human beings first, and women second…that we are able to thrive because of our cultural differences, not despite them. I demanded that girls become women without being cut. Every young girl in Kenya and beyond can become the woman of her dreams. I did.