Born in Kenya in a south-western region called Kuria, 23-year-old Natalie grew up expecting to be circumcised along with all the rest of the girls in her community.
'When I was younger I really wanted to get circumcised," she said surprisingly, when we met at the Women Deliver conference. 'There’s a lot of celebration [around the ceremony]. People dance, goats are slaughtered, cows are slaughtered. We’re normally a very small, quiet community but around this time, we suddenly wake up.'
However, Natalie’s parents refused to allow their 10-year-old daughter to be cut.
'I didn’t know what it meant, but I was very angry with them,' she said.
All the other girls her age in her community underwent the procedure in a ceremony presided over by the community elders every year.
'All the girls wake up around 3am and are taken to the river. The circumciser is there and you bathe in the cold water, then you get cut. They use the same knife and there is no anaesthesia to lessen the pain. At the time, I didn’t know what would happen to them later.'
Years later, Natalie is not only grateful to have escaped FGM, she feels lucky to have grown up in a family that enabled her to receive an education. Her parents sent her to boarding school outside of the community to complete her studies. During this period, two of her friends died from complications related to FGM.
'One died immediately because she bled too much, the other died when she was 15 while giving birth.' These tragedies left a strong impact on her.
'I was so angry at people in my community for doing that to girls. I believe that every girl should have the opportunity to know that it is actually wrong, it's a crime. But that can only happen if they get to go to school.
'I’m the first in my village to go to university and that literally changed my life. Many parents don’t see the need [to send their daughters to school], and even when they do, girls have to work in the morning, tend the cattle, and school is far. By the time they get to school, they’re so tired they can’t even perform.'
After finishing her studies, Natalie returned to her community resolved to fight for the rights of girls like her. She set up Msichana, a community-based organisation that aims to secure the rights of girls and young women in Kuria by improving access to education and working to end FGM, child marriage and gender-based violence. She led a fundraiser to build a community centre which has now become the Maclyne centre — a beautiful library where children and young people can learn, play and gain vital information on their rights.
'We have 500 kids but only 50 seats — and 5 computers that we are very proud of!' she says.
Motivated by the way education shaped her life, she wants Msichana to help girls discover the opportunities available to them.
‘If all you say is, “FGM is wrong,” girls will ask, “But then what else? What will happen to me? Will I get married, will have a future if I don't do it?”’ Instead, Natalie helps girls picture the possibilities education opens for them.
‘You tell them, “You know what, this is a lecturer, this is a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer does? She was once a young girl like you.” If you give them an alternative, it will change things.'
However, although attitudes are changing, things are not perfect, and many members of her community are still resistant to the work she is doing.
“There’s a high chance I am not going to get married to a man in my community because I am not circumcised — people say no-one will marry me. They think I am a rebel.”
But this will not stop her fighting for her beliefs.
“For me education gave me confidence, education has opened doors for me. Education has moved me from a tiny small village to Copenhagen,” she said, smiling. “I have been able to speak in front of dignitaries on huge platforms because of the little education that I received, so I want to touch as many lives as possible.”
For more information on Msichana, visit: http://msichana.co.ke/