On February 6, the United Nations will call on the world to fight together to reduce the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. It is estimated that 200 million women and girls in 30 countries, the majority of them being Africa, have been “cut.”
The practice is rooted in gender inequality as it attempts to control women’s sexuality. It is usually initiated and carried out by women who fear that daughters who aren’t cut will be exposed to social exclusion.
Many actions have been taken locally throughout the African continent to curb this dangerous practice that is threat to rights of women and their bodies, as well as their physical health. Some of these efforts are led by women who have undergone FGM — or even inflicted it on others.
Aja Babung Sidibeh, for example, was a female genital mutilator on her native island of Janjanbureh in the Gambia. Today, she is actively involved in the fight against the practice of genital mutilation. In April 2014, she told the Standard Newspaper:
If I had previously known what I know today, I would never have circumcised a single woman. We have caused much suffering to many daughters and wives. That’s why I said if my grandparents had known what I know today, they never would have circumcised any women. Ignorance is the main issue.
FGM is strongly rooted in certain customs and traditions concentrated in Africa. It is also practiced elsewhere, such as the Middle East and Asia. In Mali and Senegal, the women of blacksmiths are generally those who practice this act. Elsewhere, they are traditional midwives.
While the prevalence of FGM over the last 30 years has fallen, not all countries have made progress. Take the Republic of Guinea. Although prohibited by Guinean law, FGM is widespread: 97% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to the procedure, according to a UN report for 2016 examining the impact of female genital mutilation and circumcision. FGM is present on a large scale in each of the four natural regions of the country, and in all ethnic groups, religions and socio-professional circles. As the practice declines at an international level, a national demographic and health survey conducted in 2012 concluded a slight increase in the prevalence of FGM in Guinea since 2002. The country ranks second in the world in terms of the prevalence rate of this practice, behind Somalia.
The UN has denounced this practice since the 1970s. About 15 states have enacted laws, conferences have been held and many reports have been written, but significant change has been hard to come by. For example, Guinea passed a law in the 1960s condemning any circumciser to hard labour for life. If the woman who was subjected to FGM died within 40 days of the excision, the circumciser was sentenced to death. However, the law has never really been enforced.
In Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, the case of Edna Adan Ismail illustrates the harmful force of this tradition and the efforts needed to stop it. Edna, born into a family of doctors of the great bourgeoisie of the country, was eight years old when she was circumcised. The purpose of this operation, according to her relatives, was to reduce her sexual desire when she grew up, thus diminishing the probability of promiscuity and ensuring she was “worthy to be married”.
Edna recounts that her mother forced her to be circumcised despite the firm opposition of her father who was absent on the day of her mutilation. When he realised the act had been carried out in his absence, her father burst into tears, having failed to protect his daughter.
Since then, Edna has become a fierce activist in the fight against FGM. In spite of the unfair advantages in favour of males, Edna attended a British university and became the first nurse and midwife in her country, and later the first lady of Somaliland.
Edna subsequently succeeded in building a maternity hospital, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, with the support of many donors. Ninety-seven percent of the women being attended at the hospital suffer another form of atrocious mutilation: infibulation. Infibulation is the act of suturing most of the large or small lips of the vulva, leaving only a small opening so that urine and menstruation can flow out. It is usually performed on a pre-pubescent teenager in order to prevent sexual intercourse.
The consequences on the sexual health of these women are a crime against humanity both during menstruation and during sexual intercourse and childbirth. Often this act causes a haemorrhage which leads to either the death of the woman or complications, due to the tearing of the vaginal tissues during childbirth.
Senegal and Ethiopia
The NGO Tostan has managed to curb FGM in Senegal through an education campaign for villagers — men and women — that tries to fit within commonly-held traditions and beliefs. Through their work, the health risks of FGM were able to be discussed amicably amongst villagers’ elders and members of the Tostan’s team, and in 1997, 35 women from the village of Malicounda Bambara announced for the first time that their daughters would not be circumcised. The work of Tostan through community education, the introduction of micro-credits, village management and peer education have had a knock-on effect in preventing the disastrous consequences of female genital mutilation.
This education campaign is certainly a long-term undertaking as the project has often been perceived as anti-African and was criticised by the surrounding villages just after its implementation. However, since the beginning of the campaign, more than 2,600 villages have announced that they will no longer practice FGM. The Senegalese government recognised Tostan’s strategy as effective and adopted it as a national model. This strategy has since been spreading in the West African region and community organisations in Ghana.
Ethiopian NGO KMG Ethiopia has also succeeded in curtailing the practice in Ethiopia, demonstrating that the empowerment of women in the community is the most effective approach, well above the enactment of laws and the implementation of major international resolutions.