Meet the woman who twice fled from her genital mutilation ceremony and today is a prominent leader that has saved more than 15,000 girls from this practice in Kenya
By Maribel Hernández / Translated by Eirian James
Escaping was the only way to become the “woman she dreamed of being”. Nice did it twice. At the same time, around four o’clock in the morning. After the cold shower preceding the ritual that serves as an anaesthetic. She hid in the same tree. The first time, with her sister. The second, alone. “I knew that if I fought for myself, someday maybe I could do for other girls from my community what I couldn’t do for my sister”, she explains.
That first time she was eight years old. Today Nice Nailantei Leng’ete is a twenty seven-year-old Maasai woman who can’t imagine herself doing any other work other than that which she does for Amref Health Africa, the NGO that was awarded the Princess of Asturias Award for International Cooperation in 2018. Her work consists of promoting alternative rites of passage within Maasai and Samburu communities in Kenya and Tanzania. In these ceremonies there is no ‘cut’, instead, books are blessed.
In the last seven years, there have been an estimated 15,000 girls who have been saved from female genital mutilation. Far from being considered a source of shame and dishonour for their families – a stigma that Nice suffered for many years – they are now respected, they continue with their studies and they do not get married so young.
Being the driving force behind this “movement”, as she calls it, has led to her appearing in TIME’s list of the most influential people of 2018. It’s been a long journey.
“If you cry during the ‘cut’, no-one will marry you»
The United Nations calculates that around 200 million women around the world have suffered genital mutilation, a practice that still exists in at least 27 African countries, despite it being illegal in many of them. Liberia announced in January 2018 that it would ban female genital mutilation, albeit for only a year. The Gambia and Nigeria outlawed the practice in 2015.
Female genital mutilation has been illegal in Kenya since 2011. According to the latest national demographic and health survey, it is prevalent among 21% of women aged 15 to 49 and 11% of girls between 11 and 15. However, it is ingrained in Maasai society, where more than 70% of the percentage of the female population have suffered from this practice.
In her home village, Noomayianat, the rite of passage (or emuatare) marks the transition from childhood to adulthood: the removal of the clitoris turns them into “women”. Before their own ceremony, considered a celebration, girls attend these practices as spectators in a type of training to “see how strong the other girls are”. From a very young age, the message transmitted to them is that they must not cry. Obviously, neither must they disobey.
Nice observed these ceremonies for a year. “They want to prepare you. You can’t cry, you mustn’t even move, you have to be strong. If you cry during the ‘cut’ then no man will marry you because you are a coward”, she explains.
This training served to help her understand what she didn’t want. “Before my ceremony I had seen a girl die because of a circumcision, I remember she bled a lot. The majority of girls my age didn’t go back to school, they got married. That’s why I decided to take that step and fight”.
The first time she fled was with her elder sister. They were orphans and their uncle had prepared the ritual (they are extremely expensive celebrations) for them and their three cousins. They hid high up in an acacia tree for over two hours. When they came down, they walked 17 kilometres to a maternal aunt’s house.
“She told us that we were creating problems, that they would come for us and beat us girls and her too. We stayed there a week. My uncle arrived with a group of men, they beat us and threatened that if we didn’t agree to the circumcision we would die, that we would bring shame on the entire community. After that my sister told me that we couldn’t be on the run forever”.
The second time she escaped alone. Her sister promised her that she wouldn’t give her up. She was mutilated. She left school at 12 and she married an older man. She has three children. Nice heard it all from the tree. On that occasion she decided to go to her grandfather’s house. She cried. She was too young, she wanted to study. She swore that she would leave and never come back, that she would end up living on the streets. The intervention of her grandfather before her uncle was key: the authority of the elders is unquestionable in Maasai communities.
And that is how, year after year, she managed to postpone the ceremony and continue with her studies. She finished secondary school and went to university. Nice achieved her dream, the price was loneliness, taunts and rejection: “I was a bad example”.
Until Amref Health Africa reached Noomayianat. They were looking for a girl that could read and write to participate in a training programme. The elders had no other option but to choose her. “I wasn’t the best option because I had disobeyed, but I was the only one”.
“When the warriors saw that I was a woman, they left”
After her experience, and now more knowledgeable on sexual and reproductive health, she began to formulate a plan to end this practice among her people. In it was a key piece: men. “In my community it’s men who take the decisions, so regardless of how much information we give women and girls we need to involve men in our work”, she admits.
She decided to start with the morans, the young Maasai warriors, who are permitted to engage in polygamy. “They are the husbands of the future, who will tell you that you can’t marry due to not being circumcised, for not being a ‘woman’ “. It took two years for them to agree to speak with her. “In my first meeting there were 14 of them and when they saw I was a woman they got up and left. Only two stayed. But I never gave up”, she remembers.
With time, the openness of the younger members to dialogue reached the elders, leading to men who spoke to other men and who organised open debates, also with women. In these debates, people discussed matters on community development, HIV, sexual education, and gradually introduced the topics such as genital mutilation, forced marriage and teenage pregnancies. Nice succeeded in convincing them that mutilating girls isn’t good for development, that it’s better to educate them.
Once the problem was understood, it was easier to find a solution. “The solutions need to come from the community. When they are given information and they understand it, they find alternatives. The rites of passage came from the community”, she explains.
The Alternative: From the Removal of the Clitoris to Books
The problem isn’t the ceremony itself, but the mutilation and its consequences concerning women’s health and lives. “We want to preserve our culture, we’re not saying that it’s all bad”, she points out. Alternative rites of passage celebrate Maasai culture and identity. “The celebration is the same: the food is the same, the traditional beer is the same, people still and dance and sing, we wear the traditional red dresses. We just replace the cut with education”, she goes on to say.
“For three days, we get the girls together and we educate them on health, education, sexual and reproductive rights, and after this process we have the ceremony. Books are blessed and these girls receive the blessing of the elders. But in the best way, not so that they go and care for a husband or children but rather so that they go on to be important, to be the person that they want to be”, she stresses proudly.
The activist recognises, however, that “it’s not completely straightforward”. There are still girls that escape from their families and turn to us, and we are under pressure from other men. This means that there is still a lot to do”. With this in mind, Nice dreams of one day having a shelter where she can take in girls who run away.
“I also want to open a school for girls and to empower women, a place where they can receive training in productive activities that can earn them money”. For the time being, she is working in an academy for leaders. Every year they aim to prepare fifty girls from the different communities with which they work so that they can become role models. “We need young voices, I can’t continue to be the reference point in the coming 40 or 50 years”.
Twenty years after the escape that made her a bad example for other girls, Nice Nailantei travels around the world as an ambassador for the fight against female genital mutilation. The elders of her community have recognised her fortitude and have presented her with the esiere, the black staff that symbolises leadership among the Maasai. She is the first woman to receive it. “We need to celebrate the small victories, appreciate the successes, no matter how small they are. That is how we will be able to do great things.