Sarah Craven serves as the Chief of the Washington Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Agnes Pareiyo, the Founder and Director of the Tasaru Ntomonok Rescue Center in Kenya, is one tough cookie Just on the edge of the beautiful Maasai-Mara, Agnes for eight years has run this "safe house" where young girls who are escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) or early marriage can find a safe haven. Agnes ensures that while these girls are under her protection, they are safe from violence and enrolled in school; then she works with the local community to negotiate the girls' safe return to their families without having to undergo this harmful traditional practice. Although FGM is illegal in Kenya, the law is difficult to enforce and is often ignored in the rural areas where the Maasai live.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days with Agnes during her whirlwind tour of New York and Washington, D.C. Agnes was a featured speaker at several events connected to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in New York and then agreed to come to D.C. to speak at a series of briefings at the U.S. Congress, U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State, as well as an on-camera interview for Voice of America. She was unbelievably generous and patient to tell her story again and again for these numerous appreciative audiences.
Agnes knows of what she speaks. When she was a young girl, she had pledged not to undergo cutting and sought the support of her father who agreed that she could be spared. It was only under the pressure of her mother and grandmother—fearful that Agnes would not be marriageable—that she finally agreed to undergo FGM. Agnes recognized the immediate effects of the pain and shock as well as the long-term impact on a woman's reproductive health. She pledged that no girl would have to undergo what she experienced and began to advocate within the community to abandon this practice.
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Agnes says part of her success is that within the Maasai community, FGM is tied to culture rather than religion and she finds culture is easier to engage in order to bring transformation. Agnes and her team have developed an "alternative" rite-of-passage that embraces the value of the cultural tradition but rejects the harmful cutting. This "alternative" rite teams girls as young as nine up with village elders or "grannies" who teach the girls everything in their culture about becoming a woman except for the cutting. The rite of passage lasts for six days with the final day involving the entire community in a celebration with feasting and gifts to mark the girl's transition to adulthood. The girls all pledge that they will not be "cut" and the community pledges that they will abandon FGM. To date, she has had great success in rescuing over 600 girls with only one case where a girl was eventual cut.
As I said, Agnes is a tough cookie. Her work is very controversial within the Maasai community as she challenges the culture head-on. One of her techniques is to show the often low-literate girls and women various models of vaginas in a healthy state and in degrees of cutting from the removal of the clitoris to the most extreme of completely sewing up the vagina leaving a small hole for urine. Needless to say, Agnes has received quite a reputation for her vagina models and indeed it became a campaign issue during her launch of her political career. Agnes was the first Maasai woman in her community to be elected Deputy Mayor of her locality and she was swept into office by the votes of women. Agnes says she believes it was her duty to show to girls that anything is possible and that women can lead their communities.
Agnes' life-saving work is supported by UNFPA and the U.S. based V-Day Foundation. Agnes is in the midst of building a second "safe house" and has plans afoot to build eight more in the coming years. She is also desperately in need of a new vehicle in order to transport girls back to their communities to begin the reconciliation process. You can learn more about how to support Agnes and her work at www.americansforunfpa.org.