When Naomi, a shopkeeper in Ntimaru, Kenya, refused to allow her daughters to undergo female circumcision, she was ostracized from her community, beaten by her husband, and her house was burned to the ground.
Her story is not at all unique, but women like Naomi, who are increasingly pushing back against female genital mutilation, often at great personal peril, have a powerful ally in their battle—a Catholic nun in her sixties who will not rest until she ends this centuries-old atrocity.
It’s estimated that more than 125 million girls and women living today have had their genitals cut in countries in Africa and the Middle East. The World Health Organization describes female genital mutilation as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways.”
The surgery, typically performed before puberty, causes irreparable damage to normal genital tissue and can lead to health consequences for the rest of a woman’s life. In 2011, FGM was deemed illegal by the Kenyan government, but enforcement, particularly in remote villages, is difficult.
The practice is painful, unnecessary, and degrading.
Sister Ephigenia Gachiri, who has a PhD in education from Kenyatta University (and an honorary PhD from DePaul University), is one bad ass chick, but she doesn’t think of herself that way and flinches when you call her that. Like a lot of the Catholic nuns I have met and interviewed over the years, Ephigenia, whose friends call her Ephi, is modest about the fact that she is literally changing the world and the lives of thousands of young girls.
In person she is warm, compassionate, and assertive. She hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks the first time we met before insisting I eat some snacks — homemade fried dough. We had a lot to talk about, she told me, and I might get hungry.
“I have an obligation to help women,” she began, placing her hand on top of mine. “It is my life’s work and this is what I have to do.”
Ephi has a bright pink cell phone that rings all the time. She never ignores it or sets it on silent because the calls are coming from her army of workers across the country who still set out on foot every day to distribute literature in rural villages and organize meetings, workshops, and conferences to educate people on why FGM has to end.
It was more than twenty years ago that Ephi, a lifelong educator of girls, first learned about female genital mutilation while attending the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing as a representative of her order the Sisters of Loreto. It was there that she learned that many of these surgeries happened right in her backyard in Kenya.
She decided that she didn’t want to just talk about stopping it. She wanted to actually stop it.
Shockingly, it’s women who perform these surgeries, often in people’s homes, without the use of anesthesia. While female genital mutilation is something proscribed by the male elders of a tribe, it is the women who carry out the cutting and the women who shun those girls who don’t undergo the procedure.
When Ephi learned this, she did what many of us wouldn’t do. She went directly to the women who performed the surgeries in Kenya to ask if she could watch what they did and learn about why they did it.
“I became friends with them and they would introduce me to the next one because they teach each other, and that way they would introduce me to another. I got the shock of my life on those visits. I knew about FGM but then I found out I hardly knew anything,” Ephi said. “Here is a problem that women bring upon themselves. I was sickened. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t get over it.”
In the short term, genital mutilation can cause severe shock, intense pain, hemorrhaging, tetanus, and sepsis. And in the long-term, things only get worse with recurrent urinary tract infections, potential infertility, and the possibility for an obstetric fistula, an opening between the vagina and the anus that can leave a woman incontinent.
Driving her little yellow Peugeot 205 through the dusty back roads of the Kenyan countryside, Ephi interviewed 45 circumcisers and hundreds of women who had been circumcised within the prior six months. What she learned was that this was not the kind of problem you could fix by throwing money or activism at it. Much has been done on a macro level by the World Health Organization and various NGOs in Africa and the Middle East to combat the practice of FGM, but she isn’t part of some multi-national organization looking to change the cultural norms of people far, far away. She is a local. She is boots on the ground. She listens and, most importantly, she shows up.
Many of the men in rural villages are relatively ignorant about women’s bodies. Ephi would ask them how many holes a woman has “down there,” and they would say two, “a back one and a front one.” “The problem was compounded by ignorance,” Ephi explained to me, shaking her head and then refilling my teacup.
“The men in those villages know nothing about a woman’s body or the kind of pain a woman goes through when she is circumcised. I wanted to explain to them what was really happening. If they had more information they could make better decisions.”
Many tribes in Kenya believe FGM binds a young woman to her female ancestors, who then bestow her with protection for the rest of her life. “If you break that line, you are disintegrating the lineage of the tribe,” Sister Ephi explained. “Then you will be an outcast. The rest of the tribe will shun you. No one will look at you when you enter a room. No one will speak to you at the watering hole. No mother will let you marry their sons.”
“The men in those villages know nothing about a woman’s body or the kind of pain a woman goes through when she is circumcised. ”
Because Ephi is a woman in the church, she needed permission to do what she believed God was calling her to do. Her bishop, a progressive man, allowed her to begin working full time to combat FGM. In 1998, along with her fellow Loreto Sisters, Ephi began the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (TFGM) project, with the goal of helping survivors of FGM heal, and educating communities to end the practice.
When the tribal chiefs fought her, she fought back. The chiefs claimed that young women needed the FGM to prove they were adult women. They needed a rite of passage. So Ephi made a new rite of passage that didn’t involve mutilating a child’s body. She didn’t point fingers, accuse, or raise tempers. She simply gave them another way to perform the traditions that hold the tribe together.
“I took some of the good ceremonies and traditions and rituals,” she told me. “I included information about how to behave as a grown-up woman and as a wife. I used many of the traditional medicines, proverbs, and songs. I inserted singing and dancing. There is a lot of fire and a lot of smoke. People want to belong to a community, and ritual makes them feel like they belong.”
Under Ephi’s guidance, many of the tribes in rural Kenya have adopted the new rites and begun teaching them in place of FGM. She now delivers workshops to thousands of children and adults each year on how to end the practice of FGM. She also publishes 10,000 calendars per year with facts about FGM and the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation project, and hangs them in huts, churches, restaurants, and convenience stores in the rural villages. She has authored several books on the topic and spoken out against FGM across Africa and around the world.
“I know I am a mad woman,” Ephi told me with a smile, her eyes twinkling and her smile hovering at the end of her lips. “Sometimes God gives you foolish courage. I never planned on stopping FGM. But it’s what I have to do.”