Agnes Pareyio
Wendy Flick, Pond Foundation
Agnes Pareyio accepts honors at the U.N. Person of the Year in Kenya ceremony.

While attending the “Grassroots Conference to End Female Genital Mutilation” in Nairobi, I thought of something Diane Arbus, the photographer, said: “I only recognize the things I have never seen before.” I had never seen anything like this before yet I recognized Agnes Pareyio immediately, as a visionary adventurer with a purpose. Her spirit is light, and full of focused intention. She is accessible, and unencumbered by ego.

Agnes created a right-of-passage ceremony for girls in Kenya — an alternative to the 5,000-year-old practice of female genital mutilation (FGM, sometimes called female circumcision). At 14, Agnes was mutilated against her will. She said the pain of the genital amputation was horrific and that she will “never forget the sting of urine.”

“They married me to someone,” said Agnes. Throughout the ordeal she questioned just why it had to be this, and why not an education for girls before marriage?

The new rite is a 2-week long ceremony that celebrates nine to fourteen-year-old girls. They are presented with gifts, beads, and traditional clothing — and are exposed to values and information that direct them toward health and education first, before marriage. “Many girls are married too young!” Agnes contends.

For over 15 years, Agnes has worked as a diplomatic activist/educator. She is Maasai first. She respects tradition and her culture. She respects men and women alike, and the girls and boys, and wants them to experience a new way to become adults.

Now, through Agnes’s work, many communities, circumcisers, parents, and tribal leaders recognize that girls “need to choose for themselves.”

Agnes began her crusade by designing a lower female torso that was carved for her by an African carver. The V formed between the legs, upright, uses five interchangeable parts to show the different levels of mutilation, and illustrates what happens during childbirth. Once the cutting rite is explained, many parents are horrified and many don’t want their girl children to be sacrificed in this way. Others view the rite a valuable tradition that gives the girls a sense of ‘belonging’ to their community. The traditional coming-of-age ritual happens during a school holiday; girls are celebrated on becoming adults, but the subsequent surgery is a surprise. It is estimated that two million girls are cut worldwide, every year.

****

The Tasaru Ntomonok Centre — Agnes’ rescue house — is three hours outside of Nairobi, Kenya, in Narok. The road all the way to the center is teeth-jarring rugged. Edges of the narrow road are eaten away by gushing water from rainstorms. Vehicles lean far over to allow oncoming buses to pass. Agnes travels this road every day to meet girls gathered in a classroom, to learn, and to testify about their experience. One beautiful, head shaven, eleven-year-old is quietly reciting a poem, when she’s jolted into giggles by Agnes’s deep bark of a voice, “Louder girl!” The girls seem to recognize Agnes as a nurturing and firm guide, and a protector.

The somber testimony begins after some song and dance. The girls speak of grief and betrayal. Agnes encourages the conversation. She says, “As long as there are people talking, then the topic is still alive.”

A tall Maasai man, dressed in a traditional red blanket, is the guardian of the gate. He doesn’t have a gun. He has a spear and machete and a lion club. Agnes’s staff is devoted to the education and protection of the girls. They house them, negotiate with their parents, clothe them, feed them, protect them, and allow them to stay until they have the direction to move on to a higher education, or marriage.

Agnes writes—

“I didn’t know that the work I am doing could touch somebody somewhere.”

What is your proudest moment?
My proudest moment is when I see girls going through the Alternative Rite of Passage without a ‘cut.’

What was the response to your “wooden model” when you first began your educational journey?
People thought that I was crazy.

What was the turning point in terms of your involvement in cultural change?
My turning was when I saw many girls dropping out of school because of circumcision.

What is the next step in your life or work?
To work harder and reach everybody with messages of anti FGM including the boy child.

What is your favorite way to travel?
It depends on the destination I am going i.e., if it’s far I travel by air and if it’s near I travel by road.

How do you recover from a bad day?
By appreciating myself and giving myself hope to continue with the fight.

****

Despite occasional death threats and a constant struggle for resources, Agnes wants to build a larger rescue house and expand her school, and educational reach into more villages. As 2005’s United Nations Person of the Year in Kenya, she hopes to attract donations. “This is the season of the cutting,” she said, and girls from 9 to 15 years old, are making their way by foot, across the plains of Africa, to reach Agnes’s safe house. Agnes said to an angry father who wanted to come kill his girl, who was seeking refuge: “You know where my gate is, and you will have to go through me to get the girl!”


Coordinates: Kenya

Agnes Pareyio

anti-FGM Activist



Coordinates:

Narok, Kenya


Donations can be made directly to EqualityNow. The money supports groups in 13 countries who are using Agnes’s model of activism.

Agnes’s Safe House was built with support from V-Day. Read more about V-Day’s mission to end violence against women here and at V-Day.org. Agnes is featured in a V-Day documentary, Until the Violence Stops.

Divas du Jour

From the Shoots

Destinations

Explore our Archives

join the pilgrimage

Sign up for our periodic divamail dispatches