KENNEWICK -- The thing that strikes Rachael Tengbom when she visits Maasai girls in Kenya is their nail polish. It is an indicator to her that teenage girls are teenage girls, no matter what country or culture they live in.
Tengbom of Kennewick has made it the mission of herself and her nonprofit Voices of Hope to give more Maasai girls a chance at being teens -- going to school, doing their hair, painting their nails -- instead of becoming wives far too young.
To become a wife in Maasai culture means undergoing female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, which the World Health Organization describes as the practice of removing or damaging external female genital organs for no medical purpose.
"Many people don't know what female circumcision is," Tengbom said.
Tengbom will talk about the practice -- which affects as many as 140 million girls and women -- at a "Light a Candle in the Darkness" event Feb. 6 in Kennewick.
The dinner is how Voices of Hope plans to recognize "International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation," a worldwide awareness-raising event by WHO to call attention to the practice, which has been deemed to have no health benefits for the women affected, and is associated with long-term physical, mental and sexual health risks.
Tengbom said among the Maasai, the practice is cultural. Women aren't deemed "women" -- and definitely not marriageable -- until they undergo female circumcision.
Advocates have made some inroads among the Maasai, and now about 2 percent of girls are able to avoid the practice through the help of organizations such as Voices of Hope.
But those who grow up without experiencing female genital mutilation can be shunned by their fellow Maasai, Tengbom said.
"When you grow up without going through that, you feel so isolated, like you don't belong," she said.
She said change will have to come from within the Maasai culture itself, and so her group works not only to teach girls that they have value as women and can contribute to their communities by becoming educated and getting jobs, but also to convince young men that it is OK to marry a girl who has not undergone female circumcision.
"We slowly want to change the young men to accept uncircumcised females," Tengbom said.
Ultimately, it is about Maasai women being able to choose their own fates in the same way American women do, she said.
She recognizes that some women may choose to be circumcised, but it is the choice that matters.
"We are not changing the communities," she said. "We are changing what happens to women in the communities."
If you go
The "Light a Candle in the Darkness" event is from 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 6 at The Country Gentleman. The $20 cost includes appetizers. Proceeds support Voices of Hope.
To RSVP, call Theo Dobie at 438-7898 or email firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday.