CNN Photos

Fighting genital mutilation

More than 4,500 miles separate the small Finnish village of Kuusamo, where photographer Meeri Koutaniemi grew up, and Kenya’s Maasai villages, where she ended up chronicling the lives of women who had experienced or escaped genital mutilation and child marriage.

The two places are worlds apart in myriad ways: in their climates, their languages, their people. Yet Koutaniemi feels a connection, deep in her bones, to both.

Tucked in the Lapland section of northeastern Finland, Kuusamo is known for its skiing, its reindeer and its long, dark winters. For Koutaniemi, growing up one of six children, it was filled with lots of fun, activity and art – the latter, in particular, being encouraged by her parents, a psychologist and an architect.

Kuusamo couldn’t contain Koutaniemi, who headed to the Finnish capital of Helsinki at age 15. After graduating from high school, she followed her photojournalist dreams by taking on assignments far from Scandinavia.

These included sojourns to India, where she focused on child labor, and to Mexico, where she collaborated with director Alejandro Cardenas for a documentary film and photo book telling the stories of transsexual Mayan Indians with AIDS.

Koutaniemi’s Kenya project was born about a decade ago, after she saw a film about genital mutilation.

When a Finnish director approached her years later to discuss a film he was doing about challenges facing women, Koutaniemi took the lead in developing a photo essay that would detail the often-harrowing lives of Maasai women.

Meeting in the safe house known as Tasura, Koutaniemi focused first on the mundane – like cooking rice and potatoes and other household chores – for the young women.

But before long, she was able to dig deeper as her subjects’ struggles and sadness quickly became palpable. Their stories were powerful enough to keep Koutaniemi up at night, her mind racing trying to make sense of the horrors these young women had endured.

Some of their suffering was physical, a product of the cutting involved in genital mutilation. Yet there were many emotional scars as well, including the shame, rejection and loneliness from having fled their native villages and families.

“In the eyes and presence of the girls, I sensed a heavy burden,” she said.

But as the days went by, Koutaniemi came to feel more hope and inspiration. These were fighters with extraordinary bravery and strength.

Even if their loved ones pushed them one way, they pushed the other way, propelled by their singular determination and a keen sense of justice.

Among the most memorable was Elisabeth Nkere, now 17. Shortly before she was set to marry a 65-year-old man, and the night before her scheduled circumcision – which her father had told her would transform her from a child to a woman – Elisabeth left everything she had known.

She walked across the savannah without food or water for three days until a woman found her and brought her to the safe house in the town of Narok.

Today, Nkere’s father denies his daughter’s existence, even threatening to kill her if she ever dares to return home, Koutaniemi said. But the teenager soldiers on, committing herself to her studies and to become an activist against genital mutilation, something many of the dozens of others staying at the Tasura safe house also want to do.

“They are getting hope and encouragement through each other,” Koutaniemi said. “They share the same past, and they feel they are more able to protest if they work together.”

The 25-year-old photographer spent two weeks with these young women, the last week of 2012 and the first of 2013, and says she is changed as well. She decided to turn her project into a photo book and to continue to shine a spotlight on genital mutilation and women’s rights issues worldwide.

Koutaniemi said the biggest thing she learned from the experience is that effective change must start from within, which is why she’s so encouraged by the efforts of the young Maasai women to right an injustice despite all they have gone through.

“Their protest is to save the daughters of their loved fellow tribe members,” Koutaniemi said. “There is a lot we can learn from this kind of responsibility for the whole community.”

- Greg Botelho, CNN