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December 7, 2007

From Mutilation to Salvation

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Back at the graduation ceremony, local magistrates mingle with U.N. officials and women Pareyio calls "godmothers." They are her eyes and ears in the villages; they alert her if a child is about to undergo FGM or be married off so she can come to the rescue.

Rhodah Nairruku, an elaborately wrinkled woman, is proud to see one of her "goddaughters" graduate from the five-day program that serves as an alternative rite of passage for girls. One would never suspect that just a few years ago, Nairruku was a circumciser, cutting as many as eight girls a day. "My first one was a neighbor's child," she says. "I did it quickly and with confidence. I didn't have any sympathy for my first case — it is something all of us had to go through. I used a traditional circumcision knife that a blacksmith made for me."

As she demonstrates her art with hacking motions in the air, I notice that her large hands are rough and her fingernails black with grime, and I imagine those hands working on the girls. Nairruku stopped doing the surgery five years ago, after word reached her that it had been outlawed.

Pareyio has come a long way, too. Once reviled for her activism, she is now the first Masai woman to be elected to public office; she's the deputy mayor of Narok. She's also the winner of the 2005 United Nations in Kenya Person of the Year award. Next? A possible run for mayor. Yet there's much work to be done. "We have a long way to go until all Masai girls go to school," she says. "Only then, with education, will our women be free and able to change their societies."


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