Warrior of another kind
Originally published in:
East Standard, Nairobi, Kenya
Jayne Rose Gacheri
For more than a decade, Agnes Pareiyo has been traversing the expansive Maasai plains on foot with a dummy organ in her hand
The wooden organ, a replica of a vagina, has recently been upgraded to rubber and can be separated into several components.
This is what the soft-spoken, but tough-talking activist against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage uses to educate the community about the dangers of the ritual.
"Discussing sex, and further more, with a replica of a vagina, was unheard of and it wasn’t easy breaking ground," says Pareiyo, who started her campaign eight years ago.
Not surprisingly, the community met her mode of demonstration with hostility.
She was considered an enemy of their culture, and nearly became an outcast.
Despite massive resistance from a community known to guard its culture zealously, she drew encouragement from the fact that her message was getting across, especially to young girls. "The huge crowds that would turn up whenever I had a community demo assured me I was doing the right thing," she says.
Her commitment bore remarkable fruits.
Over 2,000 girls were saved from the cut within eight years under the umbrella of Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI), a community based organisation in the Southern Rift Valley, Narok District, where she is the elected Deputy Mayor.
To feather her cap, she was named the United Nations in Kenya Person of the Year, last October, a title she earned for her contribution towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
Tasaru Ntomonok, which means ‘rescue the woman’ in the local Maa language, continues to spread its tentacles far and wide.
At the time of this interview, Pareiyo was preparing for a one-week demonstration and training in Arusha.
Pareiyo’s passion stems from a personal experience; she was circumcised at the age of 14 and later on forced into marriage.
"The experience was so painful that it traumatised me for a long time… I never wanted it to happen to any other girl," she says.
She walked out of her marriage after her husband took a second wife.
She however continued to look after their four children, who are now adults.
Two of her sons are working, while another is in university. Her last-born child, a girl, attends a technical college.
Her mission is to liberate girls from her community from "senseless genital mutilation" and "deprivation of education through early marriages".
After many years of struggle, she set up TNI in 1999 after a survey she and her partner the late Leah Ole Muiya conducted showed that girls dropped out of school due to FGM.
"A girl who has undergone FGM means many things to many people.
To boys it means there is an available wife, to the poverty-driven parent she is a source of finances, and if the girl herself continues with education she becomes big-headed as she thinks of herself as an ‘adult’," says Pareiyo, who partly blames poverty for FGM.
"Some 56 per cent of Kenyans live below the poverty line," she says, quoting statistics from Ministry of National Planning.
And this is where the circumcisers come in.
"Most of the circumcisers want to cut as many girls a month as possible to earn a living.
In Narok and neighbouring areas, for example, cutters are paid Sh1,000 per girl, meaning if she does 20, that is Sh20,000 — very enticing. There aren’t many rural women who get that kind of money," says the anti-FGM activist.
To combat the practice, TNI has embarked on a pilot project to provide capital to the cutters to start other businesses.
"It’s bearing fruit and since the beginning of the project, at least five circumcisers have laid down their tools," she says.
Through what the FGM activist terms "a miracle from God and one of the greatest things that happened to TNI", she crossed paths with Eve Ensler, author of the controversial Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day (Vagina, Valentine, Victory) in 2000.
The meeting changed TNI’s fortunes tremendously. For starters, she and her ‘apostles’ received a gift from Ensler in the form of a sport-utility jeep, allowing them to cover a distance that once took them a year, in three months.
"Ensler first saw me sitting in a field conducting a class and must have been amused at my mode of delivery…" Both women use the cut and uncut vagina for their demonstration.
Their shared interest brought them together instantly.
"Ensler made it possible for me to spread my campaign to areas I could never access. The message spread so fast that soon, girls were coming from all over seeking our advice and protection," says Pareiyo.
Though the stage was set, there was something missing — Agnes and her group needed a place, a shelter to accommodate the runaway girls who needed to escape the wrath of a community that thought its culture was endangered by Pareyio’s work.
TNI could not cope with the number of runaway girls and the temporary solution of sending them to well-wishers was falling apart, "because families of runaway girls were turning their wrath on well wishers."
Attempts to lobby local leaders, the government and even NGOs bore nothing.
But like the warrior she is, Pareiyo was determined to soldier on. She had by now earned the V-Day title, ‘Vagina Warrior’ (a name given to women and men who have experienced violence personally or witnessed it within their communities and dedicated themselves towards ending such violence through effective grassroot means), sought the help of Ensler, to establish a rescue center to which the girls could ‘escape’.
"This was after a series of cases in which girls were ‘cut’ and married off forcibly even after an agreement between their parents and TNI to allow the girls pursue education peacefully without having to undergo FGM or early marriage," says Pareiyo.
Ensler was quick to respond.
Using V-Day, a global movement that helps anti-violence organisations expand their core work on the ground, while drawing public attention to the larger fight to stop worldwide violence (including rape, battery, incest, FGM and sexual slavery) against women and girls, a series of fundraising activities through V-Day benefit productions of the Vagina Monologues were conducted.
The result was the establishment of what the movement calls Safe Houses. The TNI Safe House was the first.
"Safe houses are shelters where girls and women faced with violence can seek refuge.
The importance of a safe house lies in the fact that once educated about the cut, girls require a place to seek refuge. Without it, many of the girls will be forced to undergo FGM," Pareiyo says as she takes us on a tour of the 40-bedroomed house.
It is also here that girls undergo an alternative ritual, which involves a five-day seclusion during which the girls are empowered to make informed decisions about their own lives.
"This education intentionally reflects the Maasai culture where women teach their girls about life as a Maasai woman after their rites of passage (FGM).
This is done when they are in seclusion and we at TNI believe that the teachings are important and should continue, but without the pain of the cut." Over 50 girls went through the ceremony last week.
This new addition to her campaign is winning tremendous results from the community, which is now looking at Pareiyo and her group, not as an enemy of their culture, but as a supporter.
Not so lucky
Only a week ago, says Pareiyo, six girls ran away from their Trans Mara homes on the eve of a group circumcision comprising 26 girls.
Twenty of them may not have been so lucky, says Pareiyo.
The six girls will stay at the Safe House until they are reconciled with their families (in the presence of the local administration).
Their families have to commit to educating them. TNI arranges for the schools and fees.
However, those girls whose parents persist in carrying out FGM as a rite of passage remain at the centre and pursue their education.
"Sometimes sad things do happen," Pareiyo says, citing a recent case, where 16-year-old Judy Santeyan and her 14-year-old sister, Dorcas Keiwua, went through a harrowing and traumatising experience last September.
Four years ago, their brother threatened them with circumcision and they fled to the rescue centre. After staying there for two years, they reconciled and the girls returned home.
"But the brother never kept his side of the bargain and in August this year he, along with a group of eight — five elderly women and three boys, all neighbours — forcibly circumcised the sisters, leaving them bleeding almost to death, were it not for the arrival of their mother who took them to hospital."
Such incidents don’t deter her, but it saddens her that the community is deeply rooted in a traditional culture that believes that girls cannot be women without the cut.
Pareiyo’s close association with Ensler has made her a globetrotter.
She has met and exchanged notes with many women of substance such as Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda and a myriad activists.
Currently, Pareiyo, who is passionate about rural women issues, is lobbying for support to form an NGO that will financially empower rural women as another tool towards eradicating FGM and stopping early marriages.