Image Source: Amref Health Africa
Nice Nailantei Leng'ete was only a child when she saved herself. At age 8, she escaped her Kenyan village and its traditional female genital mutilation rituals and custom of child marriage. FGM, often referred to in communities that practice it as "the cut," is a ritual that involves the partial or entire removal of a woman's clitoris and labia and/or stitching up of the vulva. It is used as a rite of passage for women in some African villages, including Maasai, where Leng'ete was born and raised.
Now, the 27-year-old is seeking to help other young women in Kenya in reversing centuries-old traditions and replacing them with a new right: education. Teaming up with Amref Health Africa, Leng'ete has been recognized as one of the pioneers behind the anti-FGM movement, persuading numerous villages to adopt safer traditions. She was included in Time's 100 2018 list and has shared her story with audiences including TEDx. Leng'ete spoke with POPSUGAR about her upbringing, philanthropy, and the misconceptions that still exist about villages that practice FGM.
POPSUGAR: Can you explain to us what FGM is and how common it is?
Nice Nailantei Leng'ete: FGM is female genital mutilation done in different communities all over Africa. But I will probably just talk about my community and what it means in my community. It's a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. That means from the age of 8 to 14 years, [young girls] have to undergo the cut. That means you cannot be considered a woman, or you cannot be considered an important person in that community, if you have not undergone the cut. It's a way of preparing the girl for marriage because, after the cut, it means that she is not able to go back to school because now we are considered a woman. We expect you to do work a woman is supposed to do: one, they expect you to be married after the cut, and then you just go and have your own home, give birth to children — as much as you are also a child. And then, again, different communities do it via all different ways.
PS: How old were you when you first learned FGM and early marriage were in the future for you?
NNL: When I was 7 years, I used to attend these ceremonies. They have to prepare you because there are things you're not supposed to do, like cry and move your whole body [during the circumcision]. You're not given any anesthesia or injection. You shower with cold water that is left outside, so that's what they use as anesthesia. It's also taboo to cry or move your body. Generally, that means no man from that community will agree to marry you.
I witnessed many girls in my village undergoing it. Many girlfriends of mine that I was studying with in school I never saw again after they underwent the cut. They were married off and they started their families. Right now, the girls I went to school with or who are my age are now mothers of children. That's why I never agreed to undergo the cut, because I would not be able to go back to school.
"I started with my own village. I knew change has to start from the inside out. You cannot wait for other people to come and bring change."
PS: Did you fully understand what it was, then, as a child?
NNL: Yeah, I understood. I lost my parents when I was 7 years old, and I had to live with my grandfather. My grandfather took me to a boarding school, and at that school, I used to interact with girls from different communities. Girls bathe in big bathrooms together in that school, so [girls would] come and look at you and laugh at you. They didn't understand why people from my community were circumcising girls. Many girls from my community would feel bad about it. Some were traumatized, and others would even drop out of school. [That's when I realized] it wasn't done to every girl.
PS: So was that the moment for you when you decided to run away at age 8?
NNL: Yeah, but not only that. You see, when I was attending these ceremonies, I could see the girls' pain — how they were not able to go back to school, how they were married young. I wanted to stand up for myself, so I [refused] to undergo the cut.
PS: Where did you go when you ran away?
NNL: First I went to my mother's sisters, and later my uncle realized I was there, so we were beaten and threatened. I had to promise I was going to proceed with the cut. Later I ran [away] for a second time. First I went to my grandfather, and I cried to him [and said], "I want to go on with my education." I told him that I would run away again and become a street child and never come back. He realized that I wanted to go back to school, so he called my family and told them, "Let's leave her the way she wants to be. Let her be like that."
PS: Did you ever return to your village?
NNL: Yes. I was in a boarding school. You can't be in school throughout the entire year, so sometimes when they'd close the school, I'd have to go back to my village. There was so much stigma because I was the only girl who had not undergone the cut that my family, the whole community, and my friends would view me as a bad example.
PS: And does your village still practice FGM?
NNL: Right now, they don't. What elders and community members do now is they support girls going to school.
PS: How did you play a role in that?
NNL: Before I went to other villages and asked them not to practice FGM, I started with my own village. I knew change has to start from the inside out. You cannot wait for other people to come and bring change. I decided that I should speak first to the men in my community. After I was trained by Amref Health Africa as a peer educator under the Nomadic Youth Reproductive Health Project, I started meeting with elders and men from my community. I made sure they understood the danger of female genital mutilation and child marriage and the importance of investing in our girls' education. And by involving everyone in my community — elders, men, women, and even circumcisers — we were able to end FGM.
PS: I'm guessing you use that same argument to convince village elders in other villages to stop using FGM?
NNL: Normally, what I do is I tell stories, [especially about] death by circumcision and children giving birth to children. We've been able to use education as a way of convincing them and showing them how other places, other tribes, are empowered or are doing great things by investing in both their girls' and boys' education. We'd also show men circumcision videos. We show them how circumcision for girls and women is done — because men are not allowed to see a girl when she's undergoing circumcision. They just celebrate because they're, like, sponsors. They buy goats and food because it's a big ceremony. But they don't really know what a girl undergoes [or] the pain she feels. After seeing that, that's when [the men would] feel bad. Some say, "If I see anyone doing this to my daughter — or anyone or any girl here — I'd kill them."
"I hope that every young girl can become the woman of her dreams."
PS: Do you offer alternative rites of passage?
NNL: Yeah, so what Amref Heath Africa in Kenya and Tanzania does is that they use alternative rites of passage [that are] community led, whereas our work is only to sensitize the community and give them information. But now the community sits down together after they have the information and find the best alternatives to female circumcision. What we're [telling them] is we need to embrace the good part of our culture. Not everything that we are doing is bad. All the other rituals — a message from elders, people taking traditional, beautiful dresses — and all that, that's good, but what is wrong is the cut. So what we're doing is we are replacing the cut with education. Because by investing in education, that's the only way we'll be able to end it.
Image Source: Amref Health Africa
PS: What has been a particularly rewarding conversation or outcome you've had from your work?
NNL: We find, sometimes, girls who have undergone the cut who we were not able to rescue, but we try to rescue them before they are married. We are not just talking to girls who have undergone the cut. We are also trying to save the ones who have already undergone [it], but [instead] we are trying to save them from child marriage. Whenever we see a 12-year-old or 10-year-old getting married, definitely, these are not easy moments. These are not fun stories. These are hard moments for us. Sometimes there are men who beat [these girls] — men who call them names, abuse them. You really need a heart that can accommodate everyone. [You need to] just focus on saving girls and these women in the community. There are so many people who inspire me — many strong women all over. And so they give me hope, and they give me the power to continue more and save more girls.
PS: What would you say is the greatest challenge for you?
NNL: The greatest challenge is resistance because it's a cultural issue. It's not easy to change culture. Culture is really deeply rooted in these communities. I think bringing change is never easy. [We see more] resistance from men who are like, "We cannot marry anyone who has not undergone circumcision."
We have many girls who we have empowered who are [making change]. We have many women groups who are doing it. We have men who are coming up. They are role models. We have elders who are now also coming up to speak about it. And that's why resistance is going down. I'm not facing resistance where I used to face it two years ago.
PS: What are some misconceptions you think people have about cultures and people who still practice FGM?
NNL: I think when we talk about FGM or when we hear about all of these forms of gender-based violence, people probably think that our parents and family are heartless. They're not doing it because they hate us. They're doing it because that's what culture demands. That's their pride. The misconception is that people think that we're bad people . . . and that's not true. They [just] don't understand that they're bringing a lot of harm to these girls.
PS: How did you start working with Amref Health Africa?
NNL: After I was trained as a peer educator, I started doing these campaigns in my own home back in 2012. Now I work with them full-time. I'm [currently] working in many communities and many villages around Kenya on the fight against female genital mutilation and child marriage.
PS: What are your aspirations for the future?
NNL: I hope that every young girl can become the woman of her dreams and that we don't have to struggle — that we don't have to fight for our rights, but [instead] are given them because that's how it's supposed to be. We have to be in an environment that sees women as human beings.
PS: I read that you're the first woman to be given a black talking stick in your community. What's the significance behind the stick, and what was it like when they awarded it to you?
NNL: They gave me [the stick] because of the work I've done in my village. [It's] a walking stick that is given to leaders that you can use whenever you're in a meeting and you feel like people are doing something that you don't like or something that you think is not OK. It's a talking stick that you can use to command either men or women. It's a powerful stick [given to] leaders and peers. It [felt] good having people from my own community appreciating me because of the work that I do.