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December 7, 2007

From Mutilation to Salvation

Millions of young women around the globe are still being subjected to a shockingly primitive surgery that leads to lifelong health problems — if not death. But in a faraway corner of Kenya, one survivor is fighting for change.

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It's the most unexpected of chorus lines. More than 100 young girls sway in unison, patting their boobs, butts, and groins in turn, as they sing enthusiastically: "These are our private parts. No one should touch them. No one should play with them." The emphasis is on the last line: "No one should take them."

While the kids have fun with the song, the lyrics could not be more serious — they may literally save lives. The girls, who belong to the Masai tribe in Kenya, are graduating from an unprecedented program that teaches them about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, customs deeply entrenched in their culture. FGM is seen here as a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood and is a prerequisite to marriage, in which girls as young as 8 are traded for cattle to their bridegrooms — men usually old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. But FGM isn't limited to Kenya. Roughly 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone the brutal surgery, and 3 million more join them every year — across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and even in immigrant communities in the U.S.

With the pilot program in Kenya marking its five-year anniversary, I traveled to the dusty market town of Narok in the Masai region to check on its progress. The news is heartening: More than 700 girls have graduated from the five-day program, which is organized by a safe house called the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre and run out of a local boarding school. Requests are pouring in to establish similar safe houses across Africa, where FGM is practiced in 28 countries — and outlawed in only 16.

But there's a long way to go.

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