Questioning FGC/M

May 21, 2017

I am reading a book called “However Long the Night”. It is about the practice of FGC – Female Genital Cutting.

The first thing I learned from the book is to not call it FGM – Female Genital Mutilation because under this name, it is a “heinous act of cruelty born from gender inequality that girls are forced to endure.”

“But the issue is far more complex than this”, the book continues, “and to consider it from the point of view of the millions of women in twenty-eight nations where the custom is practiced is to understand a far different reality. The truth is, women who adhere to the tradition do not view it as an act of cruelty, but rather as a necessary act of love. Cutting one’s own daughter is critical to her future, ensuring that she will be a respected member of her community and preparing her to find a good husband in cultures where marriage is essential for a girl’s economic security and social acceptance. To not cut one’s own daughter would be unthinkable — setting her up for a lifetime of rejection and social isolation.”

The book is about Molly Melchin, an American student who came to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student. She eventually formed the NGO Tostan in 1984.

Tostan is a new type of educational program, one that engages communities in the process by working in their own language and using traditional methods of learning, such as dialogue, theater, dance.

The book starts in 1996, in a village where a Tostan facilitator was working with a group of 35 women who were in class three days a week for a three year course. The facilitator, in a departure from her normal topics, starts a conversation about FGC and is met with silence.

“What I’m about to read is a statement from the World Health Organization,” she said. “Female Genital Mutilation is an act of violence toward the young girl that will affect her life as an adult.” … “Would anybody like to share their thoughts about this?”

“We all know that mothers practice this tradition out of love for their daughters, so that they will be respected and accepted members of their society. Why do you think the World Health Organization would make such a statement?”

The women were silent and the facilitator ended the session for the day.

Two days latter, the women returned to class. “We’ve prepared a theater on the topic,” the facilitator said, asking for volunteers to come to the center of the circle. “It’s based on a story about a girl named Poolel. Who would like to take part?”

“The women came alive in their roles. As the story went, the day came for Poolel to undergo the tradition. She was taken to the cutter for her procedure, but afterward something terrible happened. Poolel began to bleed profusely, greatly worrying her mother. When the bleeding worsened, her mother took her to the village health agent. Her efforts to stop the bleeding failed, and it was obvious to her mother that Poolel was in great pain. She was eventually taken to the regional hospital, where the doctors tried to save her life. But it was too late. Poolel died the next day.”

At the end of the theater, the facilitator asked. “What consequences befall a girl who is not cut?” She was met with silence. For a long time no one spoke.

Then “Takko the village midwife and a mother of three, hesitantly raised her hand. ‘I know this is an uncomfortable topic for many of us here,’ she began, ‘but all last night I thought very seriously about this. We never talk about the tradition, but maybe it’s time.’”

“Takko went on to describe the problems in childbirth she’d witnessed in her work as a midwife, and how difficult it was for the doctor to sew up scar tissue, therefore requiring more time for a woman to heal. She had long suspected that women who could not have children may have suffered infections following the cutting, causing their infertility. In Senegal, the majority ethnic group—the Wolof—do not practice the tradition, and during her training as a midwife, Takko had assisted in the births of some of these women. She had noticed they were more elastic and therefore had much easier and less painful deliveries. ‘What Ndey (the facilitator) is telling us is true. This is not a healthy practice.”

After awhile her friend Aminata spoke. “As you know, I’m a Toucouleur,” Aminata said, referring to the predominant ethnic group from the north of Senegal, “and according to my customs I was cut as an infant and sealed shut afterward.” The women knew this was sometimes the type of cutting practiced. After a girl was cut, her legs would be tied together until the wound closed. Aminata’s mother had arranged for her to be married at fifteen.”

“On the night before my wedding, my mother explained I would have to be cut open the next morning in order to consummate the marriage. I panicked and tried to refuse all of it,” Aminata said. “Marriage to the man chosen for me, being cut open. But I had no choice. The procedure to open me was agonizing.” Afterward, still in pain, she fled her village. “I’d been told that if I wasn’t penetrated that night,” she timidly told the class, “my wound would again close, but I didn’t care. The pain was so severe I couldn’t imagine having intimate relations with my new husband.” She remained in hiding for a few days until the pain subsided. That man eventually divorced her, and she was married a few years later to another. She ended up having several children, but each time she had great difficulty in childbirth. “My body was so damaged, I could hardly be put back together again,” she told the others.”

When Aminata finished, another woman stood to speak. And after her, another.

One by one, they cautiously shared their experiences of the tradition.

One woman could not tell her story, it was so painful. Her own daughter almost bleed to death, like Poolel in the story. Eventually she became a champion for ending FGC and said she would not let her second daughter be cut. Then the other women in the class joined in and decided that their daughters would not be cut. Eventually they found allies with other women and ended the practice altogether in their community.

Revisting FGC

Approaching FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) or FGC (Female Genital Cutting) from a global view is not the answer. In many cultures in Africa, including Muslim, FGC is mothers doing “what is best” for their daughters. It is not the same as ISIS capturing girls and women so that they can produce soldiers and it cannot be compared to sex trafficking. We cannot stop this practice by insulting mothers.

Tanzania passed a law that banned FGM. What did the Maasai in my project area do in response? They started cutting their girls at age 7-8 instead of at puberty, so they could hide the cutting from the government. This is even worse for the girls, because it marks them for early marriage before they even get a good start in school. If they are cut at puberty, at least they have a chance, being older, to protest. Or they can escape being cut until they quit school. An alternative passage ritual to being cut has been developed, so that girls of puberty age become ‘a woman’ without being cut. But if they are already cut, this alternative passage ritual is unavailable to them because they are not pubescent.

We call it FGC because it is a term that less accusatory of the parties involved in FGC. It is a term that is more likely to achieve the acceptance of the parties involved.

The NGO Tostan pioneered approaches against FGM in Senegal and found that they could accomplish eradication of the procedure at the community level, but it took engaging all the players, the imams, the cutters, the mothers, the men, the elders, and the mothers. And they had to get a buy-in from neighboring communities because their girls who are not cut cannot get married and their grooms would be from neighboring communities. Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, fought against a government ban of FGM, but the government proceeded with it anyway.