“It takes at least two people to circumcise a girl, one to hold her legs and the other her arms,” said Ourey Sall, who for years performed the procedure. “Afterwards, we apply a mixture of goat droppings and plants to stop the bleeding.”
It has been five years since she put down the knife, breaking a tradition handed down from her mother, and her mother before that. It was a difficult decision but one being made more and more in Senegal today.
On this day, Sall was among a crowd of men, women and children attending a ceremony in which members of 70 villages from the country’s northeastern Matam region publicly renounced female genital mutilation (FGM) as well as forced and early marriages.
The ceremony at Sedo Abass, the 19th of its kind in Senegal over the last decade, attracted a hodgepodge of villagers, local leaders, NGO workers and even a group of Mauritanians interested in seeing how this could work in their own country, where 71 percent of women aged 15 to 49 had undergone mutilation according to 2001 statistics.
The World Health Organisation says that female genital mutilation - a term that encompasses a number of practices, including female circumcision, burning and the use of herbs to induce bleeding - affects 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide.
It takes three main forms: the removal of the clitoris, the removal of the clitoris and inner labia, and infibulation where all the external genital organs are removed before the vagina is sewn shut, leaving only a small opening to allow urination and menstruation.
Law rarely enforced
The practice dates back more than 3,000 years to ancient Egypt where it was part of a fertility rite in which removed parts were offered to the sacred Nile.
Today, while many governments and international organisations consider the practice a violation of human rights and a threat to health, it persists due to beliefs that it is part of religious faith or that it can protect a girl’s virginity, purify her, or even avoid causing a newborn’s death through contact with the clitoris.
In Senegal, female genital mutilation is practiced by about 20 percent of the population, primarily among the Bambara, Soce, Soninke, Mandinka and Pular ethnic groups.
In the predominantly Pular region of Matam, more than 94 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 have been cut, according to a national health study released earlier this year.
In 1999, the Senegalese parliament adopted legislation against female genital mutilation, but the stiff sentences faced for violating the law, which range from six months’ jail to a lifetime of hard labour, have rarely been applied.
| Members of 70 villages from the Matam region publicly renounced FGM
For its part, the Ministry for Women, Family and Social Development has also launched a national action plan to discourage the practice and over the last decade has been working with UNICEF and a number of NGOs.
One such NGO is Tostan, which in Senegal’s main language Wolof means “bloom”. Although Tostan’s original agenda was promoting literacy, sanitation and health, it has despite itself become highly involved with the fight against FGM.
Spreading the word
“The education programmes were not intended to be part of a fight against female genital mutilation,” said Molly Melching, its founder. “We started out promoting human rights but when people see that a tradition is doing more harm than good, they drop it.”
Since 1997, more than 1,600 Senegalese communities, roughly a third of the 5,000 that perform female genital mutilation, have given it up after getting involved with Tostan.
“It’s precisely because we never said that we were fighting against this tradition that we’ve had so much success,” Melching said.
As the chief of nearby Katoote village put it: “Tostan taught us about the negative aspects of circumcision but it’s still up to the people to make their decision.”
“We held a town meeting a year ago and we decided to stop the practice,” he added.
Because intermarriage makes it impossible for any single family or village to renounce female genital mutilation in isolation, the NGO tries to get all members of a given community involved, who can then spread the word to neighbouring villages.
Tradition, not religion at play
|Dienaba Sy formed an organisation of teens to fight the practice of FGM
In the Matam region, which by UNICEF estimates is 99 percent Muslim, the majority of people believe that the practice has its roots in Islam.
Not so, said Mahmadou Kahn, the religious leader of Katoote village.
“Circumcision goes back to a time well before Islam and, thanks to improvements in scientific knowledge, we can now see the problems it involves,” he said. “Giving up this practice has become a necessity.”
Female genital mutilation is often carried out without much consideration for hygiene and can cause haemorrhaging and, further down the road, cysts, incontinence, sexual dysfunctions and sterility.
There is a serious risk of HIV infection too, due to habits like those of former practitioner Sall, who would sometimes circumcise up to 15 girls without changing or sterilising her blade.
And it can cause possible complications during childbirth, when tissues can tear, leading to massive blood loss. Moreover, circumcised women often have trouble pushing the baby out.
“If the actual delivery lasts too long, the child’s air passages get blocked and it can’t breathe. That can cause neurological problems, disabilities and even death,” said Fatou Fall Seck, a midwife at the hospital in nearby Ourossogui, according to whom 99 percent of women whose babies she delivers have undergone FGM.
“Respect our rights”
But despite the health risks, female genital mutilation has supporters.
“Most of my friends are in favour of circumcision. They say that it helps to control sexuality because a circumcised girl won’t be as interested in sex as one who isn’t,” said Seydi Silla while admitting that he did not know yet if he would have his daughters cut.
“I just don’t understand why foreigners come here and impose their views on us,” he added.
But Dieynaba Sy, a 13-year-old who was cut three years ago by her grandmother and subsequently formed an organisation of teens committed to fighting the practice, took advantage of the Sedo Abass ceremony to reach out to her elders.
“We are begging our fathers and our mothers to understand us and to respect our rights.”