The following article appeared in the November/December 1998 edition of Homemaker's. Homemaker's is a Canadian women's magazine best known for issues it has taken on, both nationally and internationally.
Homemaker's Magazine: PO Box 714 Markham Station, Markham, Ontario L6B 1B4.
Editor-in-Chief, and author of the following article, Sally
Armstrong, was kind enough to allow this article to be reprinted
on this web site.
Not My Daughter
by Sally Armstrong
©Nov/Dec. 1998, Homemaker's Magazine
The contrasts are stunning: the beauty and serenity of the
women sitting in the circle: the hideous brutality of the stories
they share. It was in this little meeting room that they learned
that the ancient ritual of excision (female circumcision)
performed on them as little girls was the cause of the horrific
health problems they suffer as adults. It was here they learned
that cutting off a girl's external genitals had nothing
whatsoever to do with religion. And it was here they made a
public declaration to forever ban an ethnic tradition that has
been going on for 1,000 years.
The women of Malicounda, a village in the West African country of Senegal, are as far away from the cosmopolitan offices of worldly bureaucrats as you can get. But here, amidst the clusters of thatched roof huts, herds of bleating goats and towering Baobab trees, they have succeeded where diplomats, politicians and scores of western women had failed. They made history as the first village to stop what's known to most of the world as female genital mutilation (FGM). Today, the movement they started is spreading like a grass fire.
More than 126 million women in 28 countries have been sexually mutilated in the name of tradition. Every day, 6,000 little girls are subjected to the old woman known as the cutter, or excisist, who slices off their genitalia with a razor. There's no anesthetic, no sterilization. There's only agony, sometimes death and always a future of pain. And in the time-tested tradition of keeping a stranglehold on the status quo, there is a taboo about speaking of the procedure to anyone.
Given the power of the taboo, it was with some trepidation that Dr. Winnie Tay, the country director of Plan International in Sierra Leone (known as Foster Parents Plan International in Canada), organized the country's first- ever conference on FGM in May, 1996. Today, in his new office in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, Tay recalls that the vice-president of Sierra Leone was supposed to give the opening address but cancelled at the last minute. "Later, he said to me, 'As a medical doctor I support you. As a politician, I can't touch this."' Tay's gamble paid off. The conference hall was packed. The secret was at last at the debating table. The truth was about to be told.
The attendees, including sociologists, aid workers, religious leaders, teenagers and their fathers and mothers, sat in stunned silence as they watched the horror of FGM on a videotape recorded in Ethiopia.
The child in the video is only eight years old. Today is her birthday. Her mother takes her by the hand and leads her to a hut at the edge of the village. Inside the hut she is tied to a chair, her legs splayed apart. An old woman clutching a rusty razor tells her to be brave and not to make a noise. Then she grasps the skin above the child's clitoris and begins cutting. The child screams in agony while the woman slices off piece after piece; the hood of the clitoris, the clitoris itself, the labia minora, the labia majora.
She closes the gaping bloody wound with three thorns and slathers it with what looks like herbs and raw eggs. The child is removed to a mat, her legs are tied together and she's told that now she is a woman.
If she doesn't bleed to death, if she doesn't die from shock or pelvic infection or tetanus, she faces a lifetime of pain. The opening she's left with is the size of the tip of the little finger. Passing urine is so painful, she'll try to retain it, which causes urinary tract infection and sometimes septicemia. When she's old enough to menstruate, she'll suffer again as the menstrual flow pools inside the scarred wall simply because it can't exit through the tiny opening. And when she marries and is re-cut with a razor to make intercourse possible, she faces the added burden of becoming pregnant with a birth canal that has been mutilated. She'll adopt the expression so many women before her have learned, "The first one always dies. It is making a passage for the other children." Because the labia minora that stretches and aids in a baby's birth has been cut off, the labor is prolonged and the baby is often starved of oxygen.
The participants at the symposium were thunderstruck. The men claimed they had no idea that's what was being done to their wives and daughters. In fact the women themselves didn't know the details as it was not a subject they could discuss with anyone. Apart from prompting shock, the disturbing images of the procedure served to forever exorcise the taboo. People, at least here in the conference hall in Sierra Leone, wanted to talk.
The roots of this brutal rite of passage are as confounding as the business of stopping it. Some say it is a religious requirement but although it is practised by both Muslims and Christians and some Jewish sects, it is not mentioned in either the Koran or the Bible. Some say it is to improve the health and childbearing capabilities of the women, despite irrefutable medical evidence to the contrary. Others claim it is to make a woman more attractive, a better and more sexually satisfied wife. In fact, it can hobble a woman with scarring, pain and trauma. Others claim that like foot binding in China and other misogynist practices, it is an obsession with purity, sanctioned by tradition, and has an inherent tendency to catch on and spread, using women as scapegoats.
The United Nations has tried for more than a decade to stop FGM. World courts have made it a criminal offence. So have many of the countries where it is practised. Western women have descended on the villages with accusations of barbarism. But until Malicounda set an example in July, 1997, the village women ignored the UN, refused to obey a law that threatened their ancient customs and basically told western women to go home and mind their own business. A few months after the declaration by the women of Malicounda, 12 more villages took the same oath. Then, in June of this year, 18 villages in the southern region of Kolda, people of the Fulani and Mandinka ethnic groups, also declared a ban on FGM. In October, women in the neighboring country, Mali, invited the women of Malicounda to come to discuss the business of declaring an end to FGM. And in the St. Louis region in the north of the country, another 70 villages are moving toward making a public declaration.
This is one of those overnight success stories that was seven years in the making. And by all accounts the story begins with Molly Melching, a woman from smalltown U.S.A. (Danville, Ill.) who came to Dakar 24 years ago as an exchange student and never went home. She learned the language, adopted the styles of the people, moved into a village and in the process experienced an epiphany: change isn't an external event, it's an internal event. In other words, if someone tells you to stop doing something that you think to be right, you'll reject the advice out of hand. A simple analogy: if someone tells you that putting braces on your child's teeth is bad because it causes brain damage, you'd think they were crazy.
"Given the opportunity to gather the information needed for change, you'll make the best decision yourself," says Melching, a six foot tall charismatic woman who fills a room with her presence. And if it's your idea, it will work." That realization inspired Melching and her Senegalese team to create a program that would help women to make their own decisions. By the way," she says, when she learns that I'm Canadian, "Canada was the only country in the world willing to fund our idea."
In 1991, Melehing started a nongovernmental organization called Tostan, which means "breakthrough" in the native Wolof language. She developed a six-part program for women which included basic hygiene, literacy and problem-solving. Melching knew the dropout rate in literacy classes was very high and felt that if she could make the classroom a nurturing place where women wanted to be, where they could talk about issues important to them, they would stay. She uses storytelling, songs and theatre as her teaching tools. Soon enough the women told her they wanted to learn about their own health, their bodies. "I realized they didn't know about menstruation, about menopause. I also realized that they didn't know what their rights were. When I told them about human rights and that they have the right to health, we began to have incredible conversations. They discussed wife assault for the first time. They talked about child labor and discovered that the children had the right to education, to being with their parents and shouldn't be sent off at the age of 10 to work as maids in the towns. Then I asked them what problems they had with excision [FGM]. They said, 'None.' So I asked if we shouldn't talk about it. 'Yes, talk about it,' they said. 'But you'll never ever change it." Up until then, when health workers asked women who'd been circumcised if they had problems with, for example, urinating or delivering babies they would say no. They presumed it was normal to take 15 minutes to urinate and three to five days of hard labor to deliver a baby. When women in Melching's classes began to realize that other w o m e n didn't have the health problems they had, the floodgates opened. Women shared their stories and began to draw an inevitable conclusion: they needed to make change.
But change, particularly one that dismantles a thousand-year-old ritual, comes with cost. Soon after the women banished FGM, a backlash whipped up like a tropical storm. They had agreed to allow reporters from Dakar to come to the village and ask them questions. On July 31, 1997, their story was splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the country. The month of August bore witness to the perilous path of pioneers. Some newspapers portrayed them as revolutionaries. Some religious leaders scorned the women. Their husbands accused them of having no sutura -discretion- by speaking publicly about such a private and culturally sensitive issue. And some militant defenders of cultural identity wished a pox on their houses.
And so the women called a meeting, a return to the circle in the little yellow room where they had met weekly for two years. When Melching arrived and talked with the women, she was truly worried about what was going on. "You have already suffered enough," she told them. "You could go back. Or stop talking to others about the decision you've made This backlash could get worse." The silence was deafening. Then Tene Cissoko, a 31-year-old mother of four, stood up. The tension in the room was palpable. All eyes turncd to the attractive woman who, like her ancestors, had never before questioned FGM. "No," she said. "We'll never go back. We made this decision based on what we know to be true. We are Amazon women. We'll continue the struggle even if it means problems." Every woman in the room stood with her. Their collective vow in the face of a swirling controversy: "Never again. Not my daughter."
Like apostles of their newly discovered human rights, they started spreading the word. When the village of Kėr Simbara was preparing for its annual circumcision rites, the Malicounda women traveled the 60-kilometre distance to that village to tell them why they had decided to stop the tradition. They knew that sharing their knowledge with the w o m e n w a s n ' t enough. They needed to talk to the men, the elders and the Imam (the Muslim leader of the area).
Initially the people of Kėr Simbara were furious. But the Imam, an old man called Demba Diawara, was upset by the stories he heard that day. Could it be true, he wondered. He told the women, "We are a family of 11 villages. We could never do this without talking to the rest of our family."
Speaking in the epigrammatic style he favors, Diawara explains to me, "Your brain always has two voices. One will give you advice. One will stop you from changing. I thought I had to listen to this new information. But I also thought our traditions need to be respected. I felt it was my obligation at that point to put on my shoes and go and talk to the rest of our family about this."
He and his nephew, Cheikh Traore trekked from village to village. They met with the chief, the leader of the women's group and the young people. "We didn't just go once. We went back three or four times. These things had never been discussed publicly." Traore adds, "I went and talked to a medical doctor about what the women were saying. He said, 'This is something you practise but it is very detrimental to the health of women and girls.' He gave me examples and it all began to make sense to me. We'd heard stories we couldn't believe. If we'd known this before, we would have stopped excision a long time ago."
On November 20, 1997, the president of Senegal, Abdou Diduf, made a declaration of his own. "I want all the villages of Senegal to follow the example set by the women of Malicounda." On February 3 of this year he began the process of writing the ban into the law of the land.
While social anthropologists have always believed it would take hundreds of years to end FGM, research fellows like Gerry Mackie of the University of Oxford in England, who has written extensively about foot binding in China, say that this no longer holds true. In fact, says Mackie, Melching's approach indicates that FGM "will end suddenly and universally."
Although foot binding persisted in China for 1,000 years, once reform began, it ended in about 10. "The work of anti-foot binding reformers had three aspects," says Mackie. "First, they carried out a modern education campaign which explained that the rest of the world did not bind women's feet. Second, they explained the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet. Third, they formed natural foot societies whose members publicly pledged not to bind their daughters' feet nor to let their sons marry women with bound feet. The women of Malicounda reinvented the techniques of the anti- foot binding reformers when they took part in the Tostan program." The key, he says, is the public pledge and the fact that Tostan provides the education but never tells people what to do.
Molly Melching is delighted, if somewhat overwhelmed, by
success of her program. Plan International director
Winnie Tay calls her a "tour de force." And
says, "None of this would have happened without
Molly." But Pinella admits funding has become a
spreading all across the country and six neighboring
countries have asked for Tostan's assistance. Although it
International Development Agency (CIDA) that
funded her through UNICEF to begin with, she didn't make
continued funding and presently relies on UNICEF
and the American Jewish World Service to continue the
making phone calls, faxing proposals for
funding and trying to find time to tend to her devoted
and villagers makes this observer think the funding
matter is more of a crisis than a problem.
On the road to eliminating a practice that has been a scourge to African women, Melching has also experienced her share of the backlash. One man spit on her in Dakar. Another shrieked obscenities at "the woman who is destroying our traditions." But mostly Melching is received like family by an ever-increasing number of Senegalese people who see her as their hero.
One is Ibrahima Ndiaye, office manager at a large European airline in Dakar, who got snared in the web of ritual and rites of passage. "When I got married my wife and I couldn't have intercourse because she was closed. I knew this was done to women but I'd never given any thought to the consequences. Then her aunt came and opened her up with a razor. I couldn't believe what was happening. My wife was in terrible pain. I vowed that such a thing would never be done to my daughters. We have six daughters and one son. When the first two girls were little my wife's aunt kept telling me they had to be cut or they'd never be accepted at the village. I said, 'Too bad. They'll never be cut.'
"Then one day I came home from work and I knew the moment I opened the door that something was wrong. The aunt was there. My wife's face was a mask of fear. Usually my little girls - they were two and four at the time - came running to the door to greet me. They weren't there. I asked my wife what was going on. She said, 'They're in the bedroom.' I rushed in and there were my little daughters lying on the bed, their legs bound by bloody robes. I was furious. I wanted to call the police but the aunt said, 'Go ahead, they won't do anything. This is our tradition.'
She had come with the excisist while I was at work and said to my wife, 'We're here to do the girls.' We didn't have a phone. There was nothing my wife could do. The aunt said, 'Maybe you're angry now but you'll thank me when it's time for them to marry, because no man will have a girl who is not excised.' I told her that any man who wanted to marry my daughter because she was excised would never have my permission. He can marry her for love, never for excision. Then I made it clear that she hadn't better touch any of my children again."
Back in Malicounda, we sit in the meeting room and this time
the tropical storm raging outside is for real. It's the rainy
season in Senegal, the first rainy season that didn't mark the
completion of circumcision rites of girls. Everybody wants to
talk about the pride, courage and confidence they have gathered
since their decision.But first they share the indignation and
pain they felt when they were accused of hurting their daughters.
They explain, "This was our tradition. If a girl was not
circumcised she would be an outcast in the village. She could not
wash with the others, prepare food with the others. She could not
marry. The ther children would see her as unclean."
The lessons with Melching changed all that. For Tacko Cissoko, a midwife who attends births in her own ethnic group that practises FGM as well as those ethnic groups that do not, the penny dropped when they discussed childbirth. "I saw the women during delivery. The women who weren't excised didn't tear. The women who were tore terribly. I always suspected excision was the cause." The women speak as one when they say, "This is a chance for our daughters. They won't have to suffer. They won't lose their health. They won't spend all their money on health problems when they're adults."
They know it's about power. The power to decide for yourself; a paradigm shift for women. By taking a stand, the women of Malicounda have fired a shot at gender apartheid a shot that's being heard through- out Africa - and around the world.
©Sally Armstrong, Nov/Dec 1998, Homemaker's,
reprinted by permission to this web site: http://www.fgm.org
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