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December 7, 2007

From Mutilation to Salvation

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Even more gruesome complications await them down the road. "FGM results in so many health problems," Pareyio says, "particularly in labor, because the scarred vaginal tissue can't stretch as it normally would. So when giving birth in a Masai village, where there is no medical care, a woman is badly torn or has to be sliced open to deliver her child. After FGM, so many women die giving birth, but few here understand that one is linked to the other — just as they don't understand when girls die from shock, hemorrhage, or infection after being cut."

Nine years ago, Pareyio, who had been cut as a child herself, began campaigning against the practice, walking from village to village in an effort to educate her people. She carried a wooden carving she'd commissioned from a local carpenter of a life-size female pelvis, with six removable parts, to demonstrate the difference between a healthy woman's body and a mutilated one. It was an audacious thing to do — and Pareyio started receiving death threats as a result. "The Masai thought I was crazy," she says. "Here, people never talked about anatomy and sex." Still, she persisted.

In 2000, she met Eve Ensler, writer of the watershed performance piece The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, a nonprofit group that works to end violence against women; two years later, with the support of V-Day and the United Nations Population Fund, Pareyio opened her safe house.

As Pareyio's message spread, Masai girls began doing the unthinkable — defying their fathers and fleeing their homes. "It takes great courage on the part of a girl," says Pareyio. "She knows her father can banish her forever from all contact with her family, from the only life she has ever known. And family is so important here."

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