A three-day international conference aimed at ending the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in Africa begins Thursday in Nairobi. The procedure, traditionally known as female circumcision, has been outlawed in Kenya for nearly three years. But it remains widespread among several tribes in the country, including the Maasai, whose territory stretches west of the capital Nairobi to the famous Masai Mara Game Reserve. A local woman's decade-long struggle to end the practice of genital cutting is finally gaining momentum.
Wrapped head-to-toe in traditional beaded jewelry and colorful clothing, 46-year-old women's rights activist Agnes Pareyio shows fierce pride in being a member of Kenya's 350,000 strong Maasai tribe. Much of that pride comes from knowing that her people have overcome enormous odds, retaining their thousands-of-years-old pastoral lifestyle and culture in defiance of the modern world, which has tried for decades to force the Maasai to embrace change.
But Ms. Pareyio says some things must change now if the Maasai people are to succeed in the future. She believes the age-old practice of female circumcision is one of the traditions that have kept the tribe mired in deep poverty and social inequality.
"In Narok district, or Maasailand, we have a very high dropout of girls from school," she explained. "They drop out of school because their parents marry them off. After female circumcision, the girl is married off." In a society which treats unmarried women as pariahs, Ms. Pareyio says being ready for marriage has always been more important for a young Maasai girl than staying in school. And to the girl and her family, being fit for marriage has traditionally meant only one thing - undergoing a brutal form of circumcision in which every part of the female genital is cut away, without anesthesia.
"All the clitoris go, the outer part of it and the inner part of it go," she explained. "And then an old mom comes with her two dirty fingers to make sure there is nothing. It's only the bone that is left. What they use to wash the wound is your urine."
Ms. Pareyio was circumcised and married at the age of 14. She says her own physical suffering and anger at having been denied a proper education convinced her that female genital mutilation, or FGM, was a practice that grew out of ignorance, not necessity.
As in many African communities which require FGM as a rite of passage for girls, it is the Maasai women, rather than the men, who have insisted on keeping the tradition alive. Mothers believe their daughters would not be desirable as wives if the girls are not circumcised.
But a local Maasai politician, Joseph Ole Sururu, says most men who have been told about the cruelty of FGM are horrified by the practice and oppose it. He says he believes the men who still insist on having circumcised wives are those who have not been educated about the subject.
Mr. Sururu says in the past, Maasai men simply accepted the practice of circumcising women as part of the culture and never bothered to question it. But the Maasai politician says as more men in the community become educated about FGM, they are realizing that it is a cruel tradition that should be stopped.
Agnes Pareyio was determined to be the person who would teach the Maasai that FGM was not only cruel but dangerous. There is no official statistic, but she believes several dozen Massai girls and women in Kenya die each year of complications related to FGM.
But the process of educating the public has not been an easy one. FGM is a subject few tribes in Kenya, including the Maasai, are willing to discuss in public. So, Ms. Pareyio joined a Kenyan grassroots women's organization, which has been trying to stop the practice using socio-economic reasoning.
With the organization's support and money from the United Nations Population Fund, she began a project six years ago of teaching Maasai families how well-educated girls could increase the family's chances of earning more money. The idea is to convince parents that it is in their interest to allow the girls to choose for themselves when they want to get married and that circumcision should play no part in that decision.
"We discuss the importance of education and the benefits of education," she explained. "It's important for them to have their own jobs, be able to make their own informed decisions and they can earn a living and be happy with their lives."
Once the parents agree to abandon the practice of FGM, their daughters are sent to Ms. Pareyio to attend what she calls the alternative rite of passage.
Older Maasai women volunteer to act as godmothers to girls who are coming of age, between 14 and 16 years old. Over the course of a week, the girls are encouraged to ask questions about sexual health and reproduction. They are also taught what their community expects of them as adults.
Misiba Baringo brought her 14-year-old daughter to the start of an alternative rite of passage event held recently in Narok. Ms. Baringo says she is delighted that her daughter will not have to face the pain she endured to be considered a normal woman in the Maasai community.
"I know my daughter will still get a husband, even if she is not circumcised," Ms. Baringo says proudly. She adds, many of us have learned that whether we are circumcised or not, we are the same. We are all women.
At the end of the week, the alternative rite of passage ends in a ceremony of singing and dancing. The 65 girls who participated this year have now all become women, without being cut, and there is much to celebrate.
Agnes Pareyio acknowledges that the number of girls being brought to her is still relatively small. She notes that some of the girls at the ceremony may yet come under pressure to be circumcised.
But Ms. Pareyio says she views even the smallest step forward as a victory against a tradition that has harmed and killed countless girls and women needlessly.