The Courage to Say No
In Kenya, one village girl challenged the status quo by taking a stand against female circumcision, reports S&H contributor Jude Isabella.
Courtesy of Josephine Kulea Leseita
Growing up in Oldonyiro, Kenya, a small village about 200 miles from Nairobi, Agnes Lekorere had always assumed she would be circumcised like all the women in her tribe—the ancient practice of cutting a girl’s genitals was considered a rite of womanhood. Then, as part of an educational campaign against the practice, a teacher at her primary school told Agnes’s class about some of the consequences of female genital mutilation, from difficult urination and painful sex to infertility, infection, and life-threatening bleeding.
Even though it meant going against the wishes of her father and the village elders, the then 10-year-old Agnes decided to take a stand. “It was scary, and I was determined not to do it,” she says. Now 21 and a law student at Nairobi University, Lekorere is among a growing group of Kenyan women who have refused the procedure and encourage girls to do the same.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 125 million women and girls, most of them in Africa and the Middle East, are living with female genital mutilation. Depending on the culture, girls are cut anywhere from infancy to about age 15. In Agnes Lekorere’s tribe, the Samburu, the procedure is usually undertaken when girls are 11 to 15 years old.
The roots of female genital mutilation, or FGM, are vague, and each culture has its own origin story and reasons, although the procedure is often associated with the idea of female purity. In Africa the practice dates back an estimated 2,000 years, before contact with the Christian and Islamic religions. But even in Western societies, FGM has been practiced for no less dubious reasons—in Victorian England and America, doctors regularly excised women’s clitorises as a cure for mental illness.
But while advocates defend it as a cultural practice, the United Nations has declared FGM a violation of human rights. Twenty-two of Africa’s 28 countries, including Kenya, have passed laws prohibiting female cutting. Groups like Equality Now, an international human rights organization focusing on women and girls, counts legislation as an important step forward. Yet activists say real change needs to begin at the community level—which is why the actions of girls like Agnes Lekorere are so important.
As part of that effort, Equality Now supports programs like the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, which provides shelter to girls from the Maasai tribe who run away from genital cutting or early marriage, which usually go hand in hand. The program has helped around 300 girls since 2004.
Although progress feels slow in some communities, there are signs the tide may be turning against female circumcision in Kenya. According to a national health survey in 2008, around 27 percent of Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been circumcised—a drop of 10 percentage points from a decade earlier. Rates in some tribal communities like the Maasai are higher, but also dropping—73 percent of Kenyan Maasai women were circumcised as of the 2008 survey, also about 10 points lower than in the previous decade.
Grace Uwizeye, an Equality Now program officer in Nairobi, says grassroots education programs are effective. “When you can tell girls the consequences of FGM, most of them don’t want to go through with it,” she says. Facing pressure from their families, some girls choose to run away. Finding a safe outcome for the girl requires a delicate balance, she says. “The parents, especially the fathers, feel the girls have disrespected them, that they have chosen to run away, so they should stay where they went,” she says. “It’s always about negotiation, negotiation, negotiation.”
Josephine Kulea Leseita, a local nurse who launched the Samburu Girls Foundation in 2012, says that her organization has helped 46 girls fleeing early marriage and genital cutting. Recognized with the U.N.’s Kenya Award in 2013, Leseita is currently raising funds for a girls’ rescue center.
Looking back on her own experience, Agnes Lekorere says she feels fortunate that she had the support of her mother, Mary, a teacher, who stood by her decision. “It was hard for my dad to understand,” she says. “He thought I was kidding, that I would change my mind later. But by the time I finished high school he knew I wouldn’t. I relied on my mother, knowing she was going to support me.”
In addition to pressure from their parents, girls who refuse circumcision can face disapproval from their communities. Village elders, in particular, worry that an uncircumcised woman won’t be able to find a marriage partner—although surveys are showing that educated younger men are less likely to support female genital cutting than previous generations. Others see the choice as a defiant repudiation of tradition.
“We need to start informing the older people that when a girl says no, it doesn’t mean they reject the cultural practices of the community. They are choosing something safe for themselves,” Lekorere says. “We have a beautiful culture aside from the circumcisions.”
While she’s reticent to share the full extent of her community’s disapproval, Lekorere still remembers the intense pressure and judgment she felt when she became the only girl in her age group to refuse the procedure. But her tenacity led to an unexpected gift: when Canadians Maria Coffey and Dag Goering, who run a travel company and fund a women’s center in Oldonyiro, learned that the village elders had refused to pay for Lekorere’s school fees because of her decision to refuse circumcision, they raised the funds to provide a full scholarship to law school.
And Agnes Lekorere may have paved the way for the next generation of Samburu girls. In the past year, 5 of the 38 girls at Lekorere’s old primary school have refused to be cut, including her 11-year-old sister, Diana.