- Everywhere female genital mutilation (FGM) exists, women groups are creating new alliances to stop the harmful practice. In Senegal and Gambia, village women meet across the border to unite against FGM. In Mali, the issue finally loses its taboos as men are made to talk about it.
Residents of 10 Senegalese villages rallied in late October in Némanding, near the Gambian border, to openly discuss the generations-old practice of cutting girls' genitals. Joined by the local prefect, representatives of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and parliamentary deputies from both Senegal and Gambia, the participants shared their experiences of a year-long education programme in which they learned about human rights and women's health, especially the risks and dangers of female genital mutilation.
The participants indicated that they soon plan to abandon the practice - long known as female genital mutilation (FGM), female circumcision or excision, and in recent years also as female genital cutting.
Like those in Némanding, villagers in hundreds of locations across Africa are now openly discussing and debating FGM, once a taboo topic. Although still on a modest scale, they are increasingly giving up the practice.
Behind the ceremony in Némanding was a Senegalese non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Tostan, which means "breakthrough" in the Wolof language. Already, following similar education programmes by Tostan, 708 Senegalese villages, representing 13 per cent of the total population in Senegal that observes the practice, have made public declarations abandoning FGM.
- The funny thing about the programme is that we have never asked people to stop female genital cutting, Tostan Director Molly Melching told 'Africa Recovery'. The programme teaches about human rights and the practice's health risks. Tostan calls this phase of the programme kobi, which in the Mandinka language means "to turn over the soil in preparation for planting." Usually, participants then come to the decision to abandon the practice on their own.
Around the world, an estimated 2 million girls are subjected to genital cutting each year. In sub-Saharan Africa, the practice is prevalent in 28 countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies four types, depending on the extent of cutting and the use of other procedures, such as narrowing the vaginal opening through stitching (known as infibulation).
FGM has serious health implications. The women and girls who undergo it often experience bleeding, infection, infertility and difficulties during childbirth that contribute to maternal mortality. The practice diminishes women's sexual pleasure and often causes pain during intercourse. It also causes psychological trauma, directly from the cutting and by seeing sisters, daughters and granddaughters undergo the same ordeal. It symbolically reinforces women's traditionally subordinate roles in society.
Only in a few countries where it is widely practised has FGM been banished by law: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Tanzania and Togo. In Nigeria it is prohibited under federal law and in Sudan only the most severe forms are banned. In Kenya, a presidential declaration has denounced the practice, and in one case a Kenyan father received an injunction to not have his daughters undergo FGM. But changing the law has its limitations. Even in these countries, the practice remains widespread.
Breaking the silence
Despite the suffering, in the communities where it is practised, few women speak out about FGM. It has been a taboo topic, both between the sexes and among women themselves. So talking about it openly is a breakthrough in itself.
Ms Fatoumata Siré Diakite of the Association for the Advancement and Rights of Malian Women, which works for women's and girls' rights, is proud of achieving dialogue on the issue. "The fact that men are now talking about FGM is a success, because the issue is related to women's sexuality, and it is not easy for men to talk about it in our country. To have a village chief sitting and talking about FGM with women in the same room is a big change," she says.
In Burkina Faso, the need to share feelings about a taboo topic have led the National Committee Against Excision to create an excision hotline, which receives about 30 calls a month.
In a public declaration to abandon FGM among the Bambara people of Karcia, Senegal, an elderly woman spoke in front of the village chief and the religious leaders, M. Melching recalls. "She said she never thought to speak about it, but in the class she learned to speak up and she was not afraid anymore. It was quite shocking."
Men also appreciate the knowledge that comes with open discussion. Ms Melching recalled a man in the education programme whose daughter had died earlier, supposedly from tetanus. After learning how germs are transmitted, he realised his daughter had died from the FGM operation. He then went back to his community and told others to stop the practice, citing the example of his daughter's death.
Changing an age-old tradition that is embedded in culture is not simple. "FGM is so ingrained in the way of life, it is like eating rice; it has always been there," says Ms Agnes McAnthony, the coordinator of an FGM eradication campaign in Kenya that brings together 67 organisations. "Therefore it is so hard to end," she told 'Africa Recovery'. "If you eat rice all your life and I come and tell you there is something wrong with your rice, will you stop?"
Many women see no contradiction between abandoning FGM while still honouring tradition and culture. "There is no culture and no tradition which is not changing," says Ms Diakite.
- Tradition is not an end in itself, says Ms Melching. "Traditions are to help people to be closer together in harmony and peace. Tradition that harms and kills and that does not promote women's and girl's health does not achieve the goal of harmony, peace and well-being for all members of our community."
In the communities where FGM is practised, it is commonly believed that girls who do not undergo the ritual are "impure," with lower social status and chances of getting married. Therefore, despite the pain involved, many girls are willing to go through the operation. Ms McAnthony, of the Kenya campaign, says that the education programmes can empower the girls and show them that they can still be "full women."
In Mali, says Ms Diakite, many believe that a baby delivered by an uncut woman will die. "We tell them that in Timbuktu, in Morocco, in France, people do not practise FGM, but are still delivering babies. People then say that they practise FGM in order to be good Muslims. We tell them that in Mecca [where Muslims go for the holy pilgrimage of the hajj], women do not undergo FGM."
Although FGM is not mentioned in the Koran, some Islamic groups promote it as part of Islamic tradition. While lobbying for legislation to outlaw FGM in Mali, Ms Diakite received death threats. Partly because of the pressure from such groups, the law ultimately did not pass. "The Islamic groups that oppose the elimination of FGM are still active," says Ms Diakite, "but they are getting weak because there are imams who say that the Koran does not say that a woman has to be cut."
Different strategies, one goal
In their work on the ground, campaigners against the practice choose their language carefully. Women's organisations have argued that "female genital mutilation" is demeaning because it implies parents are "mutilators." The word "cutting" is more neutral, they say. But some organisations have maintained that a negative connotation is useful in order to deliver a message that the practice is harmful.
The term "female circumcision," according to some experts, implies a misleading analogy with male circumcision, thereby obscuring the seriousness of its risks to women. Official UN documents use FGM, the earlier term, while some UN agencies, such as the UN Population Fund, use both FGM and female genital cutting.
According to Ms Melching, Tostan also avoids using terms like "fight" or "war" when describing its campaign in Senegal. "As soon as you say the words," she says, "there is resistance, defensiveness and anger."
Organisations all over the continent have found enlisting the support of opinion leaders to be instrumental. In Burkina Faso, the minister of social action is Ms Mariam Lamizana, who has publicly supported ending FGM and is also the president of Women's Voice, an association opposed to violence against women. In Senegal, Tostan's campaign was supported by Imam Demba Diawara, who toured Bambara villages near Joal to convince the people to end FGM, emphasising that abandonment would not risk the prestige of their daughters. During the ceremony in Némanding, Senegalese parliamentarians committed themselves to help improve women's health.
Ordinary villagers are becoming empowered. One woman in Némanding noted that learning about human rights, health and how to organise "makes a difference in the life of the women in the community. Now we have more confidence and we participate in decision-making."
There are numerous strategies to eliminate FGM, but all emphasise involving entire communities. In Kenya, organisers promote an alternative rite of passage in which girls aged 12-13 years go through the same ceremony but without the cutting. In Mali, efforts involve lobbying, educating the women practitioners and giving them alternative skills for earning a living. Information is spread by local radio stations, to reduce the public demand for excision.
"Legislation is important," Ms Maria Gabriela De Vitta, UNICEF advisor on harmful traditional practices, told 'Africa Recovery'. "But the community has to want it. To have a different rite of passage is a good strategy, and so are the literacy programmes for women. But the most important thing is participation."
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