Growing up among the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people who inhabit parts of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania and continue to pursue their traditional way of life, Nice Leng’ete was set to undergo ritual circumcision at age 8. But she knew that she would be forced to leave school afterward, and would likely soon be married, so she begged her grandfather to let her delay the ceremony. She was shunned by her community, faced condemnation from her village, but also became the only girl from her community to go to high school. It was then, she said, that she started thinking about how to help other girls like herself avoid circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM).
“We lost a girl because of circumcision. So I saw that in this community,” she told BBC News. “After circumcision they are married off at the age of 10, 12 … I started helping girls but I thought this is not enough because they go back to their family, they start fights, they run away, then where do I take them? So we kept on fighting with the community and that is when I realized we need to find a way of talking to them.”
So Nice violated her community’s traditions once more, this time by speaking directly to her tribe’s men and elders about the possibility of ending the practice of FGM and allowing girls to pursue educations if they so chose.
“It’s not easy because a woman is not supposed to talk in front of men in this community,” said Nice. “But I knew fighting female genital mutilation — it takes time. I wanted to use education as a way of convincing them. We really need to invest in girls’ education the same way we invest in the boys’ education.”
After years of such efforts, Nice managed to secure a meeting with the Maasai elders council at Mt. Kilimanjaro — becoming the first woman to ever address the council. The meeting proved a historic success, as the elders soon declared that FGM would be banned among Maasai living in Kenya and Tanzania. Nice, who now works with Amref Health Africa, is currently involved in efforts to modify Maasai coming of age ceremonies to exclude FGM without compromising her people’s efforts to retain their culture.
“So we said, in the whole process of eliminating female genital mutilation, what is harmful is just the cut,” she explained. “So let us do away with the cut, and let all the other rituals that are performed during circumcision remain. Because morally we need to feel like we are still owning our culture. That is good.”
In so doing, she added, she was also able to realize her other goal — enabling young girls to obtain an education.
“For the last seven years we’ve been able to reach over 15,000 girls who are now women without the cut, and they’re in school,” Nice told BBC News. “I feel, with books and pens, when we invest in girls education, they will become professors, doctors and teachers, journalists, anything they want to become. And that is my hope, that all of them will be able to get an education.”
Watch BBC News interview with Nice below.