I was fourteen years old when my mother and grandmother announced that I was going to have my clitoris, my labia majora, and my labia minora cut out. They said if I resisted, I would be a coward. In my culture, the worst thing you can ever be called is a coward. What they did to me next caused me real harm, but it also gave me the cause of my life.
I was never naïve. I grew up as a Masai girl in Kenya in the 1960s and 1970s, and at some point in my childhood, I must have become aware that in my culture, there was a rite of passage into womanhood. It was to have your vagina mutilated by a man using a blunted instrument. But I was part of the first generation of Masai girls to be sent to school, and there, I met girls from other groups – including some that didn’t practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I learned from them that you can grow to be an adult with your vagina intact. It was what I wanted.
I went back to my family and explained I would not be mutilated. My father sided with me: he said it was not necessary. But the village taunted me, and said I was weak. They said things like – this is our culture. This is our way. If you are not cut, who will you be? Would we call you a girl, or a woman? Do you want to remain a child all your life? Who will you marry? How can we accept you into the adult rituals, if you remain merely a child?
On the morning I was mutilated, they woke me up at three in the morning, and they took me outside naked, because they said if I felt the morning breeze on my body, it would cool me and I would bleed less. I was laid on a table and I saw that the object they would cut me with was not sharp. Nobody offered any anesthesia or anything like that. I was told it was essential not to cry – your father is here, they said, and your father should never see you cry.
I was determined to show I was not a coward, so I tried very hard not to show any emotion. As a result, they cut far deeper than they are ‘meant’ to. They cut away everything, and I could not stop bleeding. That day I drifted in and out of consciousness, and I was extremely dizzy when I woke up. They told me the dizziness had nothing to do with the cutting – it was just normal – but I knew this could not be the case.
What replaces your vagina after female genital mutilation this extreme is scar-tissue. When I came to consciousness, an old woman told me I had to urinate, because the salt in the urine would sterilize the wound. It was agony to pee – it burned into the open wound – but they ordered me to keep doing it. Then they forebade me from putting my legs together – they said that the scar tissue would fuse together and it would block the vulva. They tied my legs apart with rope, so they would not touch, even when I slept. I had to remain like that for days, bleeding.
When you ‘heal’, you will always live with your vulvas overlapping – until the day you are married. On that day, your husband’s best man will make way for the husband, by punching a goat’s horn into your vagina.
As I lay there after being mutilated, I made myself a promise. I was going to do everything I could to stop this ever happening to another girl. My daughters would not be cut, and the daughters of the Masai would not be cut.
In 1975, some 98% of women in this part of Kenya were genitally mutilated, and so when I and some others decided to act, we knew we had to approach this fight carefully. We did not begin by making the blunt and direct question of FGM – we approached it sideways, by going from village to village talking to the people there about some of its effects. Usually, a girl is mutilated as preparation for an early marriage, so we started to explain to people that if they let their daughters go to school and did not mutilate them, they would be able to earn money and support their family.
And we explained that God made our vaginas sufficiently elastic to squeeze out a baby. Scar-tissue cannot stretch in the same way, so when a woman tries to push a baby through this scarring, the baby often becomes trapped between the pelvic bone and the scarred opening, and is deprived of oxygen. As a result, we have a large number of brain-damaged children. We tell them this won’t happen if we stop FGM.
I would walk from village to village across miles and miles, explaining these points. When I met V-Day – the precursor organization to One Billion Rising – they asked me what they could give me to help. I said – a jeep, because it would get me there faster. Now I have a jeep.
We run education programs and workshops. It is very important to me that we are not only talking to the women. We are talking to the men too. I speak to mixed groups. If we do not persuade men – and teach them to love their women and their bodies – we cannot win.
Then V-Day helped me to set up a safe-house for girls and young women who refuse to be mutilated, and refuse to be married off as young teenagers to old men. I run it today. When I began this work, some people reacted with fury. I remember how they would scowl at me, and taunt me, yelling “Funna! Funna!” – the word for the process of cutting. There were times I was afraid for my safety. One time, for example, a young girl fleeing mutilation came to our safe-house, and her parents followed close behind, demanding we hand her over. “You will only get to her over my dead body,” I explained. They told me I was destroying their culture, and the girl was their property. I stood my ground. I remember what it is like to be mutilated, and I will not allow it to happen again.
Not long ago, I got a call from a woman who told me that there was a young girl who wanted to resist cutting, but was being dragged by her parents. By the time I arrived, she had been buried in a shallow grave, after bleeding to death. I made sure the police investigated, and her father is serving nine years in prison for manslaughter – but I know we need to do more.
When women stand up and defend themselves, it works. Remember – in 1975, 98% of women were mutilated just like I was. Today, it is 27%. That’s 27% too many, but it’s also the sign of a revolution. It wasn’t handed down on high. It was fought for by me and my sisters. I believe that no woman should call herself free until all women are free. I am one part of a global struggle – one that unites the one billion women across the planet who have been beaten or raped or mutilated. Every February 14th, we rise up, and we dance, to show we have not been defeated. This year, the theme for One Billion Rising is just that – revolution. I invite you to join us.
I promised myself, on the day my vagina was mutilated, that I would never let another girl be mutilated – and I am winning. I know all over the world, women are making promises to their sisters and their daughters, to make their lives better. I hope we can all rise together.
As told to the One Billion Rising team.
Agnes Pareyio is the Founder of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and the V-Day Safe House for the Girls, and a One Billion Rising and V-Day Activist
1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS. Every February, we rise – in hundreds of countries across the world – to show our local communities and the world what one billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant impunity and injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness – one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.
In late 2014, we initiated a new series, “Building to One Billion Rising Revolution,” where the stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about CHANGE were shared on OneBillionRising.org. Grassroots Activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.
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