She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too


(Photo: Andrea Bruce/New York Times)

 

The following excerpt is from an article originally published in the New York Times on January 13, 2018. Read the full article with more photos on the New York Times website here.


January 16, 2017 –  The first time cutting season came around, Nice Leng’ete and her older sister ran away and hid all night in a tree. The second time, her sister refused to hide.

 
For Maasai families, the cutting ceremony is a celebration that transforms girls into women and marks daughters as eligible brides. But to 8-year-old Nice, it seemed like a threat: She’d be held down by bigger, stronger women, and her clitoris would be cut. She’d bleed, a lot. Most girls fainted. Some died.
 
Still, her sister gave in.
 
“I had tried to tell her, ‘We are running for something that’s worth it,’ ” recalled Ms. Leng’ete, now 27. “But I couldn’t help her.”
 
Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting.
 
In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.
 
Her work mirrors national — and global — trends. Rates of female genital cutting worldwide have fallen 14 percent in the last 30 years. Here in Kenya, cases have fallen more than twice that fast.
 
New laws have made a difference, here and elsewhere. Kenya outlawed female genital cutting in 2011, and a special unit for investigating cutting cases, opened in 2014, prosecuted 76 cases in its first two years.
 
But laws made in the capital often have little effect on culture in the countryside, where custom is deeply ingrained and men’s power is virtually absolute.
 
In Maasai country, male elders enforce the customs, and the cut has long been one of the most important. The belief has been that women aren’t women unless they are cut, which means men can’t take them as wives. Much of how Maasai society is organized relies, in one way or another, on that ritual.
 
So the fight against female genital cutting, experts agree, needs Ms. Leng’ete’s kind of work: persuading village after village, and elder after elder, to overturn centuries-old custom.
 
“Every community has their own reason for why they cut their girls,” said Christine Nanjala, who leads the special prosecution unit. “You’re dealing with culture, and when you’re dealing with culture, you’re dealing with the identity of a community,”
 
“Some rural old men asked us, ‘What will we call this woman who is all grown up, married, has children and is not circumcised?’” she added. “They do not have a name for such a kind of woman.”
 
Ms. Leng’ete’s community did have a name for her. “It’s a very bad name in my native tongue,” she said, one meant to shame a whole family.
 
That shame is one reason families pressure reluctant girls. Ms. Leng’ete’s grandfather, her guardian, took a gentler approach and asked her, after her second escape, to explain herself.
 
“ ‘I’m only 8,’ ” she remembered telling him. “ ‘Wait until I am nine.’ ” She added, “I was trying to bargain.”
 
But when he brought it up again, she still refused.
 
“I told him, ‘I will never come back even if it means being a street child,’ ” she said. “When he realized I wanted to run away from him forever, he said: ‘Let’s leave her. When she wants to go, she will tell us,’ ” Ms. Leng’ete remembered.
 
Her grandfather was an elder, so he couldn’t be overruled. But the community still ostracized her.
 
“Families wouldn’t let me play with their daughters,” she said over lunch at a Nairobi cafe. “Everyone saw me as a bad example, someone who disrespected her family and went against the ways of the community.”
 
Things were different for her sister. After the cutting ceremony, she was taken out of school and, at age 12, married off to an abusive, older man. She had three children.
 
Ms. Leng’ete, meanwhile, began to remake her reputation.
 
When she became the first girl in her village to go to high school, she noticed that younger Maasai girls admired her uniform. She asked them if they wanted to be like her. “I wanted to show them I am happy with my life,” she said.
 
She told the girls that she had opportunities because she had refused the cut, and soon some turned up at her house, fleeing the ceremony just as she had.
 
Because she helped them, she had to hide — again. “The morans wanted to beat me,” she said, using the Maasai word for younger men who assist the elders in defending the community’s customs.
 
So she changed her approach. She would bargain with the elders, just as she had bargained with her grandfather. But it wouldn’t be easy.
 

Read the rest of the article here.



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