When Nice Leng’ete and her 10-year-old woke up the morning of their cutting ceremony, they immediately knew they didn’t want to go through that themselves. They took the cold shower that is meant to serve as an anesthesia, and they slipped out of their Kenyan village and ran through the bush to their aunt’s house that was 40 miles away.
They had seen and heard other girls in their village, and they had even seen some of them faint and lose their lives.
However, the girls were found a week later, threatened, and maltreated. They were also told that they would not be real women if they did not get cut, and they would not be able to get married and would bring shame to the family.
Leng’ete wanted to run away once again, but her sister refused because she was afraid of the consequences. Leng’ete then told her grandfather, a respected elderly person, that she would keep running and even become a street child if they insisted she gets cut.
The grandfather finally relented and told the village to let her remain as she was, even though she would be considered a coward.
Leng’ete was determined that nothing will stop her from getting her education and helping girls in a similar position.
She eventually connected with Amref Health Africa, an organization that supports community-based health initiatives and started a journey toward educating the community away from the FGM rituals.
She has since helped more than 17,000 girls and saved them from FGM through community education and the creation of alternative rites of passage.
Legn’ete shared her story on the main stage at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver last week, and the audience sat in reverent silence.
Some of the women in the crowd came from regions where the procedure is common, and some from countries where the practice is seen as barbaric.
Leng’ete then explained how she was able to change her community’s FGM rituals.
The deck was stacked against Leng’ete in numerous ways, and we all know it’s not easy to change a culture.
She told Health that women are not even allowed to talk in front of men in the community she comes from, and they are not allowed to address men. It took her three years for them just to accept her, because she was a woman.
The key word, however, is patience. It’s about giving them time, and taking it slow.
Even though, there are millions of girls around the world still at risk of FGM.
Even though the origins of the procedure are unclear, it has been present for centuries in various countries. The practice has become a heinous symbol of patriarchal control for many, and tradition and cultural identity have outweighed education in the countries where it is still practiced.
Thanks to activists like Leng’ete, that’s changing, and she says that the key is to educate people about how harmful the practice is and let them create alternative rituals to mark the coming-of-age.
Watch her tell her story at minute 12:13: