Having just given birth, an eighth-grade girl in Kenya complained she felt dizzy.
She was quickly losing blood and in need of urgent medical attention.
Despite the obvious risk, her family refused to take her to the hospital, fearing another risk–that they would be arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
That same day, the girl had undergone female genital mutilation, a process banned in Kenya two years earlier.
Their fear cost the girl her life.
The girl’s story signals a new dilemma in Kenya and local communities worldwide, as countries ban the long-standing practice known by its shorthand, FGM.
Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the non-profit Kakenya Center for Excellence in Kenya, and Voice Of America both report the number of girls who experience FGM is no longer recorded in Kenya because the once-public practice has gone underground.
“It is becoming worse,” Ntaiya said. “The mothers are putting them to sleep and they cut them in their sleep.”
That increases girls’ chances of major, or even fatal, health complications from vaginal cutting.
“It is important to have laws,” Ntaiya told the PBS NewsHour’s Margaret Warner during a recent public discussion at Johns Hopkins School for International Relations. “But education is really key, for not just the girls, but the mothers and the parents to really know what they are dealing with.”
A UNICEF report released earlier this year estimated FGM affects 200 million women worldwide, and the practice is predicted to increase in the next 15 years despite the diligence of many programs to halt the practice.
International organizations are trying to combat the problem in developing countries. The World Health Organization and UNICEF last month updated its guidelines on FGM, encouraging more countries to ban the practice but also support “culturally-sensitive education and public awareness-raising activities.”
Ntaiya’s Kakenya Center for Excellence, or KCE, in southern Kenya is one of many programs trying to stop FGM. What sets KCE apart from other NGOs and international programs is its focus on grassroots efforts.
As part of registering girls for her school, Kakenya requires the parents not to forcefully marry them off or undergo cutting.
“When [parents] see the girls are doing well [in school] they say, ‘I don’t want to touch my girl, if FGM is going to make her be bad. No, no, no!’” Kakenya said.
The reason parents agree to do so is, in part, because Ntaiya understands their culture. She understands, because it is her culture too.
Ntaiya was the first woman in her Maasai village in southern Kenya to go to college. She agreed to undergo FGM if her father would let her finish high school. From there, she went to Randolph Macon College in the U.S. and returned to build an all-girls school.
To date, KCE has now helped roughly 380 girls receive an education. Monthly weekend health trainings at neighboring schools teach another 3,000 girls and boys about FGM, early marriage, sex education, and self-defense.
While the evidence is anecdotal, Ntaiya said she has noticed a cultural shift in her village.
“Rather than comparing each other by whether or not their daughter is a woman having been cut,” said Ntaiya. “Parents start competing about who’s child is smarter and doing better in school.”
Ntaiya said she realizes eliminating FGM cannot be done overnight, but she predicts that in the 30 years, girls in Kenya and surrounding countries will have very different stories and much brighter futures.