Agnes Pareyio made a promise to her best friend from boarding school: She would not undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) when she went back to her village in Eastern Kenya for summer vacation.
When she got there, however, she saw that her mother had already begun to prepare for the coming-of-age ritual. Her whole village turned up to partake in a massive celebration. When Pareyio realized the festivities signaled her time had come to be cut, she told her mother that she refused.
It was [no longer] a matter of me saying no to FGM but a matter of me being a coward and the worst thing that you can ever call a Masai [woman] is to call her coward.
“Then my mom went crazy,” Pareyio said in an interview in her office in Narok, Kenya. “She was screaming. My grandmother, everybody, was talking about me [and saying] that I’m a coward. That I can’t face the knife. The the story [had] turned. It was [no longer] a matter of me saying no to FGM but a matter of me being a coward and the worst thing that you can ever call a Masai [woman] is to call her coward.”
To prove to her family that she was not a coward, Pareyio choked back cries and tears when her genital organs were sliced off.
Twenty-seven percent of women in Kenya have undergone FGM, according to a 2007–2008 survey conducted by the World Health Organization. The practice is most prevalent among certain tribes, such as the Masai. Although the rates are declining, a 1999 study found that 97 percent of Masai women were cut.
Unable to save herself from the practice, Pareyio has dedicated her life to stopping FGM in her community. She heads the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative. When the organization was first founded in 1999, it focused on promoting education for girls but then, after a survey revealed that Masai girls tended to drop out of school after undergoing FGM, Pareyio and her colleagues decided to confront the taboo practice head on.
FGM was so ingrained into Masai culture, Pareyio said, that “it’s like they are a part of [us].” Asking people to stop cutting girls meant asking them to leave behind a centuries old tradition. Pareyio and her colleagues weren’t exactly welcomed when they began to walk from village to village with the wooden model of a vagina they used to explain the negative health effects of FGM.
“We were called names and received threats,” she said. Her own husband left her because he was unwilling to accept Pareyio’s work. But eventually, her work began to make a difference.
The alternative rites of passage Tasaru organized to tell girls the truth about FGM — while maintaining traditional teachings about proper hygiene, marriage, and reproductive health — made girls confront the practice just as Pareyio had attempted to do when she was a teenager.
Like Pareyio’s mother and grandmother, many older Masai people were unwilling to accept the girls’ refusal. In 2001, one teenage girl ran away from home and came to the offices of Tasaru to escape FGM. More followed.
“I saw that these girls had a lot of courage to face their parents, to come up from their homes,” she said. “We knew [then] it was important to have a private place [to house the girls who ran away].”
It just so happened that Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright who wrote The Vagina Monologues, was in Kenya looking for ways to support girls there. Pareyio met with her and told her about the work of Tasaru. Through her anti-violence organization V-day, Ensler made a donation and construction of a housing facility for girls who escaped FGM began.
At first, the Tasaru Girls Center included classrooms so that the girls could continue their education while there. As news of the Center spread, however, more and more girls ran away to it, sometimes with the help of local pastors and tribal chiefs who Pareyio and her colleagues reached out to about their work. Tasaru began instead to place girls in area primary schools and send the older ones off to boarding school.
With so many girls seeking out the Center every year, “We could not keep the girls here [forever] and we wanted to create room for the other girls coming [to us].”
And so, Pareyio and her colleagues decided to try returning the girls back to their parents after they finished school by using a traditional Masai reconciliation process that involves engaging elders from different villages to make peace between feuding parties.
“It’s not just that you go once and expect the parents to listen to you,” Pareyio said.
It’s a challenging task — but a very necessary part of Tasaru’s work. One thing that helped, Pareyio said, was the 2011 the passage of a law that banned FGM in Kenya.
“The reconciliation process [involves] going to talk to the parents of the girl, about why she had to run away, and persuading them to respect the decision of this girl,” she said. “On the other side, [is] making them understand that the law says they have to take care of their children and the law says that girl has a right to be in that home — and without being cut.”
At times, the process doesn’t go smoothly. If she fears for the girl’s safety after returning her to her home, Pareyio leaves behind a vehicle and a driver who can bring the girl back to the Tasaru Center. She also trains village women to serve as “god mothers” who can help the girls if they sense danger.
With the support of the women’s rights organization Equality Now, the Center has been able to serve and evntually return hundreds of girls back to their home communities through this process over the years. It currently houses 46 girls who have escaped from FGM or early marriage, which often follows the cut by a few months.
We are no longer the Masai that were there in those old days.
Pareyio is hopeful that the access to education and information will significantly curb the practice of FGM. She notes that many traditional Masai practices are far more infrequent than they once were.
“They used to remove the two lower teeth,” which she said hardly ever occurs anymore. Face tattooing and the gauging of earlobes are also less common amongst the younger generation of Masai.
Many have now given up the bright red checkered wraps that were once ubiquitous among Masai people and choose to wear Western clothing instead.
“A lot has changed,” Pareyio noted. “We are no longer the Masai that were there in those old days. Education is changing. Religion is changing.”
FGM is one of those things. In the coming generations she hopes it will be seen as a thing of the past.
This reporting was made possible by a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.