From 2009 – 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves honored the work of women’s health advocates worldwide by asking readers to nominate their favorite women’s health hero. View all nominees by year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Entrant: Rebecca Thomson
Nominee: Agnes Pareiyo, Women’s rights campaigner – campaigns against genital mutilation in Kenya
Everything I know about this woman comes from a feature in The Independent (UK). She runs a shelter for girls fleeing genital mutilation in the Rift Valley, Kenya, and she also travels around teaching people why it is wrong.
Below is an excerpt from The Independent article by Johann Hari.
“Agnes Pareiyo, a big, broad 53-year-old woman with immaculately coiffed hair: she looks like a 1950s housewife in Masai tribal dress. She is indeed a warrior – for women’s rights. She is here to get justice for Sision – and all the girls like her. Sision’s father glares at her with uncomprehending hate. For Agnes, this trial is the culmination of a fight that began when she was 14 years old.
“One day, my father told me I was going to be made into a woman,” she says, almost whispering. When he explained what this involved, she refused. She thought it was barbaric and cruel. But she was the daughter of the village chief; she had to set an example. “I tried to fight, I tried to resist – but they forced me. So I was determined not to scream. But because I didn’t scream, they cut even more out. They cut me very severely. And afterwards, as I was lying there, I resolved I wouldn’t let this happen to more girls.”
Agnes grew up to be a housewife and the treasurer for the local district. One day, 15 years ago, they discussed at the district council why so many girls were dropping out of school. Agnes pointed out that it happened after the girls were cut – so she began to tour the schools, telling girls they didn’t have to do it. “At first, people said I was a crazy woman. Who is this madwoman explaining what clitorises are to our girls? My member of parliament condemned me, saying I was trying to destroy Masai culture and corrupt our girls. But I kept to my course.”
She hit upon the idea of having a wooden model of a vagina carved for her, so she could demonstrate plainly what “circumcision” does to it. “That was when people said I was totally insane!” she says, with a great whooping laugh. They called her “the woman with the wooden vagina”.
But after her school tours had been going for a few months, something happened that Agnes hadn’t anticipated. Girls who were about to be mutilated began to run away from home to find her – and seek help. “They were terrified. What could I do? I let them stay with me, but soon I realised they couldn’t all stay with me.” So – with help from Comic Relief, and from Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues – she set up an organisation called the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, and built a shelter for the fleeing girls. She takes me there, to a bright, airy centre filled with freed girls. They are cooking and reading and plaiting each other’s hair.”