When I was young, I always admired the older girls. I grew up in a village in Njoro, Kenya and I waited eagerly all year for the colorful ceremonies in December that brought villagers together from miles away.As I watched the older girls participate in the ceremonies, women would tell me, “When you grow big like them, you will dance like them, wear a nicely done outfit made from squirrel hide, and people will come and celebrate you like we are doing for them.”
The older girls were pretty in dresses that fit them well and their lovely faces exuded joy. They seemed to have many friends and the older women liked talking to them. I hoped to grow big so I could enjoy the same treatment.
I used to wonder where all the older girls disappeared to after participating in the ceremonies, but when I asked, I got no answer. I didn’t know that behind the beautiful faces were vulnerable girls who faced enormous challenges and had no one to fight for them.
It was only later that I learned that the focus of the ceremonies, called “Tumin,” was the circumcision of boys and girls aged 13 to 16 years old. Youth were nominated for the ceremonies by members of the community.
Girls from my community had to go through this process of female genital mutilation before they could get married, or they were ostracized. The girls were usually nominated by suitors, and sometimes by parents who were broke and could not afford to educate their daughters. In marriage, girls were viewed as a source of income because they could be traded for a bride price of a herd of cows, goats, or sheep.
The girls were kept in the dark, oblivious of who would be next for the ritual—otherwise they would run away. They were told at the last minute to dress up for the occasion and they could not object. After the month it took the girls to heal from the circumcision, they were taken by their new husbands immediately.
One day, when I asked my mother why I never saw the girls coming back again, her eyes became teary. She knew the old men would soon come after me.
Indeed, I was 13 when I was nominated. What I knew about the circumcision at the time was that it was a tradition that had been there long before I was born. It was a ceremony to fête beautiful girls, and once we completed the process, we would be given gifts.
When my mother got wind of the plan, she arranged for me to leave my home for another town and become a house help. She knew if I stayed I would be forced to endure genital mutilation like the rest of the girls. She would not be able to prevent people from coming to our home at night and taking me away to the ceremonies.
I was lucky to escape the ordeal of female genital mutilation, but there were so many other challenges I faced.
Like many of my counterparts, I was missing classes five to six days every month because of periods and I was struggling to pass my classes. I felt it was not worth my effort to continue my education if I had nothing to hope for.
I was walking long distances each day to fetch firewood and water while the boys stayed at home. I saw so many girls dutifully taking on these responsibilities, only to be handed over unceremoniously to fellows with nothing good to offer them. There was a point when I hated being a girl.
Many girls from my community never got an education. I would see them languishing in poverty, turned into slaves in their new homes. I would see them staying in marriages where they were not happy because they already had many children. I would see girls dying due to HIV infections contracted from their husbands, who often had multiple wives and strayed outside of their marriages.
As I watched girls losing their bright futures, I became motivated to seek justice and fight for the rights of women and girls. With the help of my mother and husband, I started a foundation, Milanoi for Women and Girls, to openly talk about the practice of female genital mutilation.
The traditions have changed a bit since I was a girl and not many girls are getting circumcised from my village. But when you go deep into other neighboring villages, you will find it is still going on secretly. We work with church elders, school teachers, and our local chief to end this practice.
We also focus on education—especially girls’ education—so that girls can grow up and make their own decisions regarding their lives. I was the first girl in my village to get a master’s degree, and I hope to see more girls get the same opportunity. In the first year of the foundation, I financially supported two girls through school. The second year, we took on three girls and two boys. To date, we have funded the education for twenty girls and boys in my community.
I want to see girls become VIPs in society. I don’t want them to have to marry against their will or undergo female genital mutilation. I want to see women become financially independent so they don’t have to beg for money from their husbands.
As we put our voices together, we are already beginning to see change. I am overjoyed that men from my own village are now supporting girls going to school. We are realizing that together, we can create a bright future for our girls.
Maureen Bii is a contributor from Kenya. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.