Words Matter: How the Perception of Women Can Be Life or Death

By Katie Maningas

As the old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”; if only that were true.  What this saying doesn’t acknowledge is that words lead to actions, laws, policies, and societal constructs that evidently become the “sticks and stones” that really do break bones, and so much more.

The fact of the matter is that words and languages are the basis of society; they dictate how we perceive each other which in turn dictates how we treat one another. It took nearly 72 years for women in the United States to earn the right to vote thanks to the tireless efforts of thousands of women and almost more importantly, privileged male allies to change the perception of women from submissive housewives to contributing members of society. And remember, this was in a country based on constitutional freedoms and equity- just imagine the strife that women in nations with lesser freedoms must suffer.

Take the Maasai group in Kenya, for example. As a patriarchal society, women are deemed as individuals of far less worth than their male counterparts and the cultural practices reflect that attitude. Early and forced marriage is very common in Maasai culture and the women are offered to potential spouses in exchange for farm animals such as cows and goats. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also a deeply rooted practice within Maasai culture, with nearly 99 percent of women over the age of 14 having undergone FGM. It is practiced so frequently because it is believed to be the process which makes a girl eligible for marriage, thus raising her status in the community and bringing honor to her family. If a woman were to refuse to participate in FGM, she would suffer severe societal backlash that could result in exile and would risk her family’s access to community resources such as food, water, and protection.

Despite any Kenyan law or policy that could improve the lives of Maasai women and girls, they do not and cannot transcend the cultural norms of the Maasai. For example, Kenyan officials criminalized FGM in 2002, yet it is still frequently practiced. Even members who are aware of the extreme health risks involved still support this practice because of the fear of social repercussions. When the Kenyan government tried to provide free primary school in 2003, the enrollment rates for Maasai girls were abysmal. Only one in fifteen girls would advance to secondary school and roughly 2.4 percent would make it to university. All because the cultural practices and beliefs of the Maasai people prevented these girls from obtaining and maintaining their education.

However, a beacon of hope has risen within the Maasai: the “Anti-Cut Warriors.” This group of 750 young men, who are also considered to be junior elders, strongly believe that girls deserve the right to voice their own opinions and make their own decisions and condemn FGM. Since FGM is ordered and demanded by the men, these warriors use their position of power to protest this societal practice by refusing to marry girls who have endured this hardship in order to force parents and elders to reconsider its value. By doing so, they also provide women and girls the confidence - and in a sense permission, because women cannot talk to or before men in Maasai culture - they need to begin resisting the procedure on their own.

With the support of the Anti-Cut Warriors, the movement towards eradicating FGM is coming into full force. By facilitating conversations with the community and actively protesting against the practice, the warriors are hopefully creating a new generation of Maasai men- one that sees the women as equals who deserve to be afforded to same liberties as them. But these warriors cannot do it alone. This movement needs more men, specifically the elders, to join the fight if FGM is to ever truly end.