At the age of 12, I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). This is a generations-old practice in my community in rural western Kenya. It is believed to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. After a girl is cut, she is considered a woman. She is often married shortly afterwards.
But as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on Feb. 6, we must reflect on the sad truth that it is not just something that happens in faraway countries like my native Kenya. It has been documented in 92 nations. It happens everywhere, from Africa to Asia, Europe, Latin America, and even the United States.
Both FGM and child marriage are rooted in gender inequality. At their core is a belief that girls and women are inherently less valuable and capable than boys and men. We are meant to stay home and be traditional wives and mothers. So our worth is measured not by our own talents, dreams, and potential, but by the number of cows and the bride price our family will receive in exchange for our hand in marriage.
I did not want to be cut. But even more so, I did not want to be a child bride, to go live in a stranger’s home, to live a life full of chores. I saw the hard life that my mom lived, that most every woman from my community lived. But, at school, I had women as teachers. They wore nice clothes and lived what seemed to me to be a glamorous life. A life of freedom. A life of their own choosing.
I wanted to be like my teachers, which meant continuing my education. I knew what I had to do: convince my father to break off my long-standing engagement to let me stay in school. Once girls in my community are married, they are forced to drop out of school to take care of the household and start a family. If I didn’t do something, that would have been my fate, too.
Sadly, FGM gave me leverage. If I stood my ground and refused to undergo FGM my father would be embarrassed before the entire community. So, I told him that I would agree to be cut and abide by one culturally significant practice, but only if he broke off my engagement and let me continue my education. He agreed.
FGM is a traumatizing experience. There is no anesthesia. You are told that it will make you a woman and that you cannot cry. You show how brave you are by going through it. Your clitoris is cut. You bleed. Some of us faint. The risk of infection is high. Those of us who survive have difficulties giving birth, suffer from cysts and pain, and we carry psychological trauma for years.
To date, many of the efforts to end FGM—while well-intentioned—have lacked the sophistication to successfully end the practice. Take, for instance, the public commitment that Kenya’s then-President, Uhuru Kenyatta, made in 2019 to end FGM by 2022. While the commitment was a positive development, it failed to tackle the root causes that perpetuate the practice.
There is a better way, one I pursued as a survivor.
In my home village of Enoosaen, I created a school for girls in 2009 that takes in students starting in fourth grade—which is just before the age when girls in my community are cut. As a condition of enrollment, parents must commit that their daughters will not undergo FGM or be married off as children.
I knew that a school could be a powerful force for change. I could ensure that the girls in my school received the support and resources to carve out a different, more fulfilling future for themselves than the one that tradition dictated. I could ensure that they were specifically taught about sexual and reproductive health, including the dangers of FGM and that it is illegal in Kenya. I could create a similar curriculum to be taught in other schools—for both girls and boys. And as an education leader and a trusted local, I was in conversation with the broader community: parents, elders, chiefs, and religious leaders—consistently prodding them to understand why FGM needed to end, and encouraging them to speak out and change the minds of others.
It has been nearly 15 years since my school first opened. Our long-term, community-based persuasion is working. Some of the most entrenched supporters of FGM have turned into some of our greatest champions.
But perhaps the biggest impact comes from witnessing the success of the girls who have gone through my school and are now young adults in the community. You see, our intervention was not only about FGM. It was a long-term investment in the holistic needs of our girls. We offered the best academic instruction possible, and we took care of all of their other needs: food, physical and mental health, scholarships for further education, professional development, and more. Today, they are role models that are changing even more minds.
My hope is that we can scale and replicate this approach not just in Kenya but around the world. But to do so organizations like mine need more funding and assistance.
When I was a girl, FGM, child marriage, and a life of chores was our only option. Today, the girls who have gone through my programs are proving that a girl does not need to undergo FGM to get married and be embraced by the community. There are other, far better options. And the successful lives they lead—these are educated, employed, capable women after all—inspire a new generation of young girls and their parents to think differently. Their example is catalyzing a collective realization that FGM needs to be left in the past and that there is nothing a girl cannot do if only we invest and believe in her.