I survived female genital mutilation – now I fight so that no other girl suffers
The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) affects millions of girls and women around the world. More than 200 million girls have undergone FGM and an estimated 4.2 million girls were cut in 2021 alone, according to UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Although a global challenge, FGM is widely practiced in 20 countries in Africa and the Middle East. In Kenya, 4 million girls and women have undergone FGM and in 2021 a high court upheld a 2011 ban on the practice.
Dr Kakenya Ntaiya was born in Kenya and, as is customary in her indigenous Maasai community, she suffered FGM as a child.
Here she reflects on her experience of surviving FGM and avoiding child marriage, sharing how these experiences motivated her to finish school, study abroad and encourage other young women to likewise.
You can read more about the In My Own Words series here.
I was born and raised in a rural village in southwestern Kenya called Enoosaen, and I come from the indigenous Maasai community. I am deeply proud of my Maasai heritage, but have always opposed patriarchal social norms and expectations that prevent women and girls in our community from reaching their full potential.
I would describe myself as a stubborn and determined dreamer. I always knew we were capable of so much more and I dreamed of being the one to prove it and create lasting change.
As a Maasai girl, my destiny was determined from birth. I had to follow the traditional path of becoming a child bride after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in puberty. FGM is seen as a rite of passage that prepares girls for womanhood and marriage.
This would also mark the end of my studies. In my community, getting girls into school is not so much about getting a quality education and skills for the future, but about socializing us for marriage and adulthood. Once our marriage was arranged (for me it was only 5 years old) and we had FGM, our schooling stopped because we are supposed to start a family and become housewives.
It was the path of all the women and girls I had known, but I didn’t want it. I dreamed of staying in school and becoming a teacher. So when I was 12, and more headstrong than ever, I made a deal with my dad that would change the course of my life forever.
I told him that I would undergo FGM, respecting at least one Maasai tradition that he thought was important, but only if I could continue my studies afterwards, rather than getting married as planned. I swore that if he didn’t agree, I would run away, embarrassing our family. To my surprise, my father agreed and, true to his word, he broke off my engagement and allowed me to continue my education after recovering from FGM.
In high school, another dream formed: to go to university in the United States. I knew that I would need help and financial support from my community to achieve this dream, so I approached the village elders, promising them that if they agreed to help me, I would return home one day. day and use my education to support my community.
Courtesy of Kakenya’s Dream
Courtesy of Kakenya’s Dream
Deep down I always knew that no girl should have to make the kind of sacrifice I made, undergoing FGM, just to get an education. It became my life’s purpose to make sure no other girl would.
Female genital mutilation and child marriage are centuries-old practices rooted in social norms and patriarchal cultures. For centuries they were not considered inherently bad or harmful practices as they are in other parts of the world. Instead, my community treated FGM ceremonies as milestones in life. And child marriage and motherhood was simply seen as the only option for women, because our worth was only measured by our bride price and the number of cattle our family would receive in exchange for our hand in marriage. .
It is important to understand that these practices are deeply rooted the way of life of women in our society, transmitted from grandmothers to mothers and from mothers to daughters. So ending these practices really requires a change in the perspective of an entire community, something that can take a generation or more to happen. It is not something that can be changed in just a few years through temporary programs, policies or laws.
This is made evident by the fact that FGM has been banned in Kenya for over 10 years, yet 20% of women and girls in Kenya have still undergone the practice. In remote communities like mine, almost 80% of women still undergo FGM. I have learned that what works best to combat these practices are long-term community solutions that work from scratch, one girl and one community at a time.
When the time came to fulfill my promise to return home and support my community, I knew that creating a pathway to education and freedom for girls, like the one I had created for myself, would be the best way to give back. So I founded Kakenya’s Dream in 2009 to do just that.
Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of Kakenya’s Dream, poses for a portrait outside her office in Arlington, Virginia on March 3, 2022.
The organization started as a one-time school, educating a class of 30 vulnerable Maasai girls from my community. Today, Kakenya’s Dream has grown into a non-profit organization, operating several holistic education, health and leadership programs dedicated to empowering girls, ending FGM and child marriage and transforming rural communities.
To date, we have educated and empowered over 600 girls in our two fully supported boarding schools; reached over 15,000 boys and girls in southwestern Kenya with educational workshops on their health and human rights; and provided continued financial, academic and social support to our schools’ growing alumni community of 280 young women as they enter high schools in Kenya and universities around the world.
Even better, 100% of girls in our programs have avoided FGM and child marriage. In a community where nearly 80% of girls undergo FGM, 50% are married in childhood/adolescence and less than 17% complete primary school, this is by far our greatest impact.
In addition to the quantitative results of our programs, another key indicator of progress has been the realization within our community that girls are capable of more than they have ever been given credit for. By equipping girls with quality education, leadership and life skills, and the confidence to pursue their own dreams, they become extraordinary leaders and agents of change in society, and our community recognizes this.
Progress is also our community turning to Kakenya’s Dream to protect and support girls when there are rumors of a possible FGM ceremony or early marriage in the works. The progress is that fathers once strongly opposed their daughters becoming champions of our mission and encouraged other fathers to protect their daughters from these practices. Progress is the hundreds of families who eagerly bring their daughters (and even their sons!) to enroll in our boarding schools each year. Progress is our pioneering class of 2009 students graduating from university this year and returning home as teachers and nurses, eager to give back to the next generation of young Maasai girls.
The secret to achieving this kind of progress lies in our holistic approach. We realized early on at Kakenya’s Dream that simply getting girls into school would not be enough to truly empower them and end FGM and child marriage. Instead, we identify every challenge girls face in their lives and tackle them all.
Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya works in his office in Arlington, Virginia on March 3, 2022.
I specifically built boarding schools to eliminate the long and dangerous journeys that girls in rural communities often have to make to get to school each day. We cover school fees, supplies, and all of our daughters’ personal necessities to eliminate the financial stress that often causes poor families to consider marrying off their daughters in exchange for a dowry.
In addition to basic health care, we also have counselors who provide expert mental and emotional health support to our students. We match them with peer mentors who help build their self-esteem and confidence. We provide menstrual hygiene supplies to ensure that periods will never prevent a girl from missing class. We make sure they have protected and dedicated time each day after school to play and just be kids, as well as study, instead of having to spend the whole evening doing chores.
We provide it all, and essential support from their families and the community as a whole.
We know it really takes a village to raise a child, so we have a community council made up of local teachers, parents, elders and religious leaders who weigh in on our programs and we incorporate their feedback thoughtfully and intentional in all facets of our work. Through this approach, the community has a personal stake in our success and wants to see the girls in our programs thrive as much as we do.
One of the greatest actions ordinary people can take is to support community organizations and movements. No one is better equipped to create sustainable, ethical, and lasting change than those who come from the very community they wish to improve, and no one will be more determined to see things long-term than someone who has a vested interest. in Success.
It is also important to have patience and trust, as change happens gradually and takes considerable time, especially now that so much hard-earned progress has been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups around the world, and progress to empower girls and end FGM and early marriage has been set back. Attention, resources and funding have been redirected and girls around the world in communities like mine are suffering the consequences.
Now more than ever, we need patience, resources, and dedicated support for these issues.
Dr Kakenya Ntaiya is pictured with students in Kakenya’s Dream.
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