The Time 100 honoree is leading a crusade to protect young women across Africa from "the cut."
This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
When she was 8, not long after losing both her parents, Nice Nailantei Leng'ete ran away from her village in Kenya to avoid "the cut," the traditional Maasai practice of female genital mutilation that transforms girls into eligible brides. Today, the 27-year-old is working to help thousands of other girls escape cutting and forced marriage, so they can stay in school and pursue their dreams. Time has named Leng'ete one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2018. Here, she tells Health she’s just getting started.
You were only 8 years old when you refused "the cut." Where did you find the strength to stand up to village elders?
Growing up, I used to attend these circumcision ceremonies and I could see a lot of pain. All the girls from my own village, after they were circumcised, they had to drop out of school, and be married to old men—people who were not even of their choice. These are 10-year-old or 12-year-old girls. They're still children. They're considered women because they have undergone circumcision. But again, these are just still children.
After seeing all that pain, I think that's what made me realize that this was something I didn't want to do. I knew that I would not be able to go back to boarding school [about an hour away]. I would be married, and that would just be the end of me.
How did you manage to escape the circumcision ceremony?
My elder sister and I woke up at 4 a.m. because that's the time you shower with cold water that has been left outside for two days. It is supposed to act as anesthesia. So we showered with the water, and then we walked outside our uncle's home, and there was a big tree there. I climbed first with her help, and then she climbed. We stayed there until there was light. Then we came down and walked to our mother's sister's place, which was about 70 kilometers, but we could not even use the road. We were walking through the bush, because we knew maybe they might find us in the road.
They found out after a week that we were there, and a group of men with my uncle came, and we were beaten and threatened. We went back to school, but our uncle came for us again and told us, "You cannot be considered women in this community if you're not undergoing the cut. It's a taboo and you don't want to shame our family."
How did you manage to escape the second time?
So we went to his home and we woke up again at 4 a.m., and I told my sister, "You know what, we need to go. We need to run."
My sister told me, "I'm so tired of the beatings, I can't be running away every time. Maybe this time, probably they will do something worse to us."
I tried to convince her, but she just said "No, I will stay." So she stayed and she got circumcised.
I went to the same tree. When I came down, I went to school. And then later I went to my grandfather, and I told him that I don't want to be circumcised. It was really difficult to convince him at first. I kept on pushing. Like, "Can you give me one year?" and "Can you give me two years?" I told my grandfather, I will run away, become a street child, and I will never come back.
I think that's when he realized I was serious, and he called my uncles and everyone and he told them, "Let's leave her. Let's let her stay the way she wants." That's how I got a chance to go back to school.
In your work with Amref Health Africa, you have saved 15,000 girls from genital mutilation. How have you earned the respect of village leaders, and changed their minds?
In the community that I come from, mostly women are not allowed to talk in front of men. Women are not allowed to address men, or to address a meeting when men are there. So it's not something that was easy.
Going back to them, trying and pleading with them, trying and talking to them... It took me three years just for them to accept me because I was a woman.
The key word is patience. It's about giving them time, taking it slow. I'm from that community, I'm not from any other community, so we speak the same language.
What will it take to end the ritual of female genital mutilation?
What we are doing with Amref Health Africa in Kenya and Tanzania, is that we have an Alternative Rite of Passage Project, a community-led alternative rite of passage. Our main watch is to sensitize the community. Our main watch is to give the community information. But the alternative has to come from them.
It's not everything that is bad in Maasai culture. So what we are saying is, "Let's do away with what is harmful, the cut." All the rituals, the blessings girls are receiving from cultural elders, the good lessons and teachings they're getting from parents, from their mothers and grandmothers—those are good teachings. Those are good things; they are not harmful.
You were the first woman in your community to be honored with a black talking stick. What does the stick represent?
It's an official stick that's given to leaders and you can use it to command, when you're in a meeting, when you think you are talking about an important topic. That was something that was really great to get from the people. It was a great honor. It gave me more morale and power to go on with the work that I'm doing, and to save more girls.
What is your hope for the next generation of women in Kenya?
I think my hope is that every young girl can become the woman of her dreams. If she really wanted to be a doctor or a teacher, I want to make sure that we are giving them that platform. We are protecting them from all these harmful practices, and they are able to become anything they want to become in life.
Also, my hope is that we will be able to bring female genital mutilation to an end by 2030, all over Africa.
I want women and girls to be in a place whereby people understand we are not just women; we are also human beings. And we don't have to strain for our rights, but they are just given freely.