Some 70km southeast of Senegal’s capital Dakar, a crowd of journalists and dignitaries gathered in the village of Malicounda Bambara on 5 August to commemorate the day 10 years ago, which made headlines around the world, when the community openly declared that it had abandoned a local tradition known as female genital mutilation or female genital cutting (FGM/C).
Yet a decade later, here, and in many of the 2,657 villages in Senegal, Guinea and Burkina Faso that have since made similar declarations, there are worrying signs that FGM/C still exists.
Just a few minutes walk from the marching bands, dancing and countless congratulatory speeches, a village elder stood outside her canteen, chastising the fanfare as a farce. “They haven’t really abandoned the practice,” she said of the women of Malicounda Bambara. “The same women who are publicly declaring it has been abandoned are continuing to cut,” she said.
The woman said a young girl was circumcised in the village as recently as one week earlier. IRIN also spoke to 14-year-old Mariama Ba who said she had been circumcised in Malicounda just four years ago.
FGM/C continues to be practiced in 28 African countries – in some cases at rates of more than 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Estimates suggest three million girls undergo the practice every year. It has many forms, ranging from the removal of the hood of the clitoris, to the more severe excision of the whole clitoris and sometimes the labia, to the stitching together of the vaginal opening.
The consequences include severe pain, cysts, urine retention, haemorrhage, difficulties during child birth and even death, as well as sexual dysfunction and psychological problems.
A woman who said she once performed FGM/C told IRIN she abandoned it after a non-governmental organisation (NGO) named Tostan informed her of the risks. Ourèye Sall, 60, of the village of Ngueriñ Bambara in the region of Thiès, said she had circumcised about 500 girls in her lifetime. “Some of the girls went on to have problems but I never knew the problems were linked to the circumcision. I thought they were mystical problems,” she said.
Youth are now learning about the adverse effects of FGM/C in school. “Now we go from village to village educating our parents,” said Fatinar Aw, president of the youth of Matam, a region in the northeast of Senegal, who was attending the 10-year anniversary.
A human right or a health issue?
Yet worrying trends are emerging that could undermine efforts to eliminate the practice, Aminata Touré, chief of the gender, culture and human rights branch of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) told IRIN.
She said girls are undergoing FGM/C at an increasingly younger age, often immediately after birth “so they cannot complain”, she said.
She also worried about the medicalisation of the practice. “For many years, we have been educating people about the health consequences of FGM/C. Their response has been ‘Okay, then we’re going to do it in hospitals,’” she said.
Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, credits human rights education, including the right to protect one’s body and control one’s sexuality, as the reason so many villages abandoned the practice.
“Human rights education had a huge role to play in this process in order to make people aware and give them the tools they need to make decisions that I think they had wanted to make for a very long time [anyway],” she told IRIN.
Touré said the answer is to link FGM/C to the broader issue of gender discrimination, to work with religious leaders to de-link FGM/C and religion, and to involve men in the debate.
She also advocated for more laws criminalising the practice and stronger implementation. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been instrumental in drafting legislation outlawing the practice of FGM/C. Legislation now exists in more than half the African countries that practice FGM/C, yet the laws are rarely enforced.
Levels of success
Melching is undeterred by the levels of recidivism among some of the communities who said they had abandoned the practice. “We always said that when you have a public declaration, it may not be the entire community that abandons.
“What is important is that you have a percentage of the community that is willing to stand up and oppose the practice. Slowly that group grows, and eventually you reach a tipping point,” Melching said.
A 2006 evaluation conducted by the Population Council, an NGO, showed that rates of FGM/C fell by 60 percent in villages that publicly abandoned the practice after going through the Tostan program.
“We’ve come amazingly far,” Melching said.
Ourèye Sall, the woman who was formerly a cutter, said that if other women are given the opportunity to discuss and understand the dangers of FGM/C then “little by little” they too will come around. “We can’t push them into it. We can’t force them,” she said.
Yet that is not enough as far as the UNFPA’s Touré is concerned. “We’ve been dealing with the issue for decades. The rates are still very high in many countries. The decrease of the practice is too slow. We need to revisit our approaches.”
At the 10-year commemoration ceremony in Malicounda, representatives from villages who decided to abandon FGM/C launched a campaign to eradicate the practice in Senegal and to greatly reduce it in Africa by 2015.
UNICEF and the UNFPA have launched a coinciding $44-million programme, which aims to reduce FGM/C by 40 per cent in 16 African countries with high prevalence within the same timeframe.
“We believe we can eliminate the practice in one generation,” Touré said.