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December 7, 2007

From Mutilation to Salvation

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Pareyio, wearing a traditional red-and-black kanga wrap over a T-shirt, along with a beaded Masai necklace and bracelets, is a fearless woman. She explains that she is trying to stop what happens to girls like Salula Naingisa.

Her eyes downcast, Naingisa tells me how, one morning when she was 9, she was awakened by female village elders and led outside her family's hut to the goat pen. A woman shaved Naingisa's head. Then, four others grabbed her arms and legs, pinning her down, while another clamped a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. Terrified, she had no idea what was happening until her body was racked with searing pain. A woman was slicing off her clitoris and labia with a razor blade. "You must not cry out. It will be disrespectful to your father," one of the women warned. Says Naingisa, "It was the last thing I remembered before I passed out." The Masai believe a girl can become a woman only by being mutilated in this way.

Barely healed, Naingisa was sold off to a 42-year-old man. Her father woke her at dawn and told her she was to be married that morning. "I didn't know what was expected of a wife," she says. "I was simply told I would go and stay forever with this man."

Still, this child bride turned out to be lucky. Acting on a tip from a villager, Pareyio drove up with a posse of police just as Naingisa was climbing into her new husband's pickup. The girl's father and groom were arrested, given a modest fine, and sentenced to four days in jail. "We have to be careful; if the punishment is more severe, it will drive these practices underground and make them even harder to stop," says Pareyio.

As she speaks, I notice that Pareyio is missing her bottom two front teeth, just like Naingisa. When girls reach age 7, Pareyio explains, a knife is forced between their teeth and twisted until the roots give way. "First, the teeth are removed, then the FGM," she says. "Bearing these pains is believed to toughen girls for childbirth and wife-beating."

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