This Maasai woman is transforming genital cutting rituals into ceremonies celebrating girls’ dreams.
Women Deliver/YouTube

She was just 8 years old when she was supposed to under go "the cut."

Nice Leng'ete and her 10-year-old sister woke up early the morning of their cutting ceremony. They took the cold shower meant to serve as their only anesthesia before having their clitorises removed. Then they quietly slipped out of their Kenyan village and ran through the bush to their aunt's house 40 miles away.

They had seen other girls in their village get cut, heard their cries of pain, seen some faint and even die. They didn't want to go through that themselves.

A week later, the girls were found, brought home, beaten, and threatened. They were told they would not be real women if they did not get cut. They would not be able to marry, and would bring shame upon their family.


Leng'ete wanted to run away again, but her sister refused, afraid that the consequences of resisting may get worse. Leng'ete approached her grandfather, a respected elder, and told him she would keep running away and become a street child if he insisted she get cut. He finally relented. He told the village to let her remain as she was, though she would face ostracism from the community and be considered a coward.

Nothing was going to stop Leng'ete from getting her education—and from helping girls like her. Eventually, she connected with Amref Health Africa, an organization that supports community-based health initiatives, and started a years-long journey toward eduacating her community away from FGM rituals and toward healthier alternatives.

Leng'ete has helped save 17,000 girls from FGM through community education and the creation of alternative rites of passage.

As Leng'ete shared her story on the main stage at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver last week, the mostly female audience sat in reverent silence. Some in the crowd came from regions where FGM is common. Others, like me, came from regions where the practice is seen as unfathomably barbaric. Many of us have daughters and couldn't imagine an 8-year-old walking in Leng'ete's shoes.

However, our horror was soon replaced with hope, as Leng'ete explained how she was able to change her community's FGM rituals.

It's not easy to change a culture, and the deck was stacked against Leng'ete in many ways. However, she also had the distinct advantage of understanding the culture she was trying to change.

"In the community that I come from, mostly women are not allowed to talk in front of men," Leng'ete told Health. "Women are not allowed to address men, or to address a meeting when men are there. So it's not something that was easy . . . It took me three years just for them to accept me because I was a woman."

"The key word is patience," she said. "It's about giving them time, taking it slow. I'm from that community, I'm not from any other community, so we speak the same language."

Leng'ete told the audience at Women Deliver how her patience and persistence in providing education paid off:

"One by one, the men came to understand that the cut was bad for the whole community. People really started to listen. After years of perseverance, something started to shift. The elders persuaded the rest of the village to abandon the cut. They replaced the pain and fear with a new ceremony that celebrated the dreams of every girl. It is such a beautiful moment. The elders bless the girls as they always did, but now they bless them to be able to continued their education before getting married and having children."

In addition, Leng'ete said that she was allowed to attend a meeting of cultural leaders in 2014, where they created an oral Constitution that would stop FGM among Maasai communities. As a result, 17,000 girls have been saved from the cut. Because of her effective advocacy, Leng'ete was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2018.

Millions of girls are still at risk of FGM, which is why support for sexual and reproductive health is vital.

Female genital mutilation has been a right of passage for girls and women in various countries for centuries. Though its origins are unclear, evidence of FGM has been found in Ancient Egypt as well as Ancient Rome. As the world has grown smaller and knowledge has increased, the practice has become a heinous symbol of patriarchal control for many. But in communities where it is still practiced, tradition and cultural identity have outweighed education about sexual health and well-being.

That's changing, thanks to activists like Nice Leng'ete. She says the key is to educate people about why the cut is harmful and then let the community create alternative rituals to mark coming-of-age. Experience shows that such change is far more effective when it comes from within the community itself, where cultural knowledge and understanding can bridge gaps and smooth transitions.

Where outside influence can help is with resources and funding of grassroots education and advocacy efforts. For example, Leng'ete has worked with Amref to establish sexual and reproductive health training programs that accompany alternative coming-of-age rituals, and that education is vital for everyone in the community.

It's important to remember that sexual and reproductive health advocacy is not just—or even mainly—about abortion. Supporting women's reproductive health initiatives helps end harmful practices like FGM and child marriage as well. (You can read more about Leng'ete and Amref's goal to end FGM by 2030 here.)

Here's to strong, courageous young women like Nice Leng'ete taking a stand and changing the world for the better.

Watch Leng'ete tell her story at Women Deliver starting at minute 12:13:

The Power of Agency: Changemakers on surviving and preventing gender-based violence www.youtube.com

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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