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December 7, 2007

From Mutilation to Salvation

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The West tends to have a romanticized vision of the fabled Masai tribe, over 800,000 strong, living along the border between Kenya and Tanzania. We see the statuesque warriors, wrapped in their red kikoi cloaks, striding nobly across the African bush in epic movies and National Geographic documentaries. Life for Masai women, however, is anything but romantic. FGM (also known as female circumcision) and child marriage were both outlawed for girls under 18 in Kenya in 2001, but if you are a Masai male, the tradition of your forefathers is stronger than any government law made in the distant capital of Nairobi.

One person who is fighting for change is Agnes Pareyio, 50, a rare Masai woman activist who runs the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre. When I meet her at the safe house, which is surrounded by high metal fences, the air is filled with the smell of fresh pine from handmade wooden desks, and the bookshelves are lined with cabbages, bags of cornmeal, and beans. For many of the girls here, it's the first time in their lives that they haven't experienced hunger. The Masai have been badly hit by droughts in recent years, their herds of cattle dramatically reduced. It's why the marriageable age of girls has dropped to as young as 8; in poor economic times, female children, who can be exchanged for livestock, are like money in the bank.

The Tasaru girls attend local boarding schools and live at the safe house during breaks because it is often dangerous to return home. Here, Pareyio teaches them that they can get an education and decide on their own future. It's a radical notion for illiterate girls who had previously been taught only to obey the men in their lives. Pareyio also attempts to reconcile the children with their families, but the process can take years; the girls go home only if their parents guarantee that their daughters can continue their education, without the threat of FGM or child marriage.

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