A spark in the heart
July 08, 2013
Nice Nalantei a key speaker at the ICPD International Conference on Human Rights speaks of her journey to claim the sexual health rights of girls in her traditional Masai community
Growing up as a Masai girl, was not easy for me. To be honest it’s a man’s world. Girls and women are to be seen but definitely not heard. We are a proud people…proud of our traditions and our identity. Yet in the process of preserving our culture we have embraced a system that denies women basic human rights: the right to control her body, the right to an education, to shoose whome and when to marry and the right to express an opinion. Female genital Circumcision, although illegal, is commonplace. Girls as young as 12 are being cut, taken out school and married.
I too would have been one of those girls. If it were not for a series of events that changed my life.
You see, when I was only 8 years old my world was shattered when my parents were devastatingly ripped away from me. Whispers and rumours hinted at a mysterious disease, but I was told nothing. I was 8 years old and my life had changed forever. Everything I knew was gone. My home, my security. But surprising as it may seem, every dark, dark cloud has a silver lining. Not belonging to a family offered me an escape from forceful genital cutting. Sure my uncle tried to organize it, to literally beat me into submitting to the cut, but I resisted. I ran away. I listened to that spark of determination had already started burning in my heart.
A great opening came to me in 2008 when my village leaders selected me to one of the peer educators to be trained by AMREF’s Nomadic Youth Reproductive Health Project. I learnt about the health risks that arise from FGM/C and early marriages and I began to really understand the importance of sexual health rights.
But how could I start to pass all of this information on? How could I make other girls understand that they too had choices? That they did not have to go through genital cutting. That we could find ways to ensure that traditional rituals and sexuality and health education is being passed on but without the physical mutilation.
I knew that change must come from within communities. But where to start when the communities were run by men who did not see, let alone listen, to girls like me? I’m sure many of you here today have faced the challenges of living or working in a male dominated environment. Many of you will recognize my dilemma. Maybe the setting is different and the goal, but you can identify with my story. We may have to be brave, stepping out of our comfort zone to fight for what we believe in, but determiniation can bring us a long way. I’m proof of that.
So what did I do? I went to the top of course! To the village elders. I took a deep breath and I started talking. It was difficult and I was nervous. I felt like I was having to face 20 of my grandfathers. But I showed them the respect they deserved and I shared what I had learned during my training. And amazingly they listened. To me, Nice.
The elders were my gateway to the Morans, the men I feared most. These elusive young men spend their time in t bush learning traditional skills. Morans listened only to other mend often had multiple sexual partners. It was essential to challeng their traditional mind set and get them on board. After all they are the community leaders of the future. They will be marrying the young women I am supporting. Without their support, introducing new traditions would have been futile.
Amazingly, thanks to the edlers, the Morans eventually accepted me and agreed to see me alone. I won’t lie it was tough – but the moment their chief gave me ‘Esiere’, the black walking stick that symbolizes leadership I knew I had been accepted. I helped the Morans understand the need for using condoms, going for treatment for sexually transmitted infections and taking HIV tests. I asked them to support new rites of passage we were introducing for young women. I suspect their support was partly due to the rumour that uncut girls were more interested in sex… but I’ll ignore that for now!
My journey through the Masai man’s world was challenging. But empowering. My driving force was always the determination that women be seen as human beings first and women second. That we are able to thrive because of our cultural differences not in spite of them. That girls can become women without the cut.
As a girl, I aspired to be the woman of my Dreams. And this is my journey so far.