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|Mutilating Africa's Daughters: Laws Unenforced, Practices Unchanged|
New York Times, July 5, 2004 – EDITORIAL OBSERVER – By TINA ROSENBERG
Mariam Bagayoko was a powerful and respected person in Bamako, the
capital of Mali. Now she is shunned and criticized by many of her
neighbors. Ms. Bagayoko used to perform what the West has come to
know as female genital mutilation, a practice inflicted on more than
90 percent of girls in Mali.
In 1988, she began to get visits, sometimes twice a week, from
Kadidia Sidibe, the director of a Bamako women's group opposed to the
practice. At first, Ms. Bagayoko hid when her visitor approached. But
after seven years, Ms. Sidibe's photos and videos of mutilated girls
with serious health problems finally persuaded her to stop.
Today she runs a group of former circumcisers, as they are called in
much of Africa, who talk to Mali's women in prenatal care clinics and
at markets, and train teenagers to speak in schools. When she tries
to convince women not to mutilate their daughters, Ms. Bagayoko says,
she may be accused of betraying their culture for Western money and
depriving girls of the chance to marry, thus condemning them to
Earlier this month in Nairobi, Kenya, Ms. Bagayoko met eight other
former circumcisers from various countries who now work against the
practice. The meeting was organized by Equality Now, a New York-based
group that finances African women's organizations that fight female
genital mutilation. At least 130 million women in Africa have been
circumcised, and two million more girls undergo the practice every
year in 28 African countries, mostly in the continent's north and
Female circumcision is just beginning to get attention in Africa, and
about 13 countries now punish the practice with jail terms. But with
the exception of Burkina Faso, where the government has vigorously
enforced the laws, the laws are largely irrelevant.
Even in some places where it is illegal, medical personnel perform
circumcisions in government hospitals. The only solution is to change
attitudes on the village level, and that's where people like Ms.
Bagayoko come in.
About 15 percent of those who undergo genital mutilation, mainly
women in the Horn of Africa, suffer the most dangerous and extreme
version, infibulation. Isnino Shuriye, who was also at the Nairobi
meeting, performed infibulations among the Somali community in
northern Kenya. She would cut off the clitoris and all the labia of
7-year-old girls. She would sew up the girls to be totally smooth,
with a pencil eraser-sized opening for menses and urine. Each girl's
legs were bound together for weeks so scars could form. Ms. Shuriye
used no anesthetic.
All types of female circumcision have huge psychological and physical
dangers. Some girls bleed to death during the operation, or die of
tetanus or infection shortly after. But for infibulated women, the
dangers are even greater. Many infibulated women suffer constant
infections and other health problems because urine and blood back up.
Their husbands must bring a knife to their wedding night to cut them
open. Childbirth often is fatal for infibulated women and their
babies, and their wounds make them much more vulnerable to the AIDS
But the health problems that convinced Ms. Bagayoko never budged Ms.
Shuriye. Members of the group Womankind brought doctors to talk to
her, but she felt that they were just trying to plant Western
ideologies. Ms. Bagayoko said that although many women suffer
gynecological problems, "people say it's because of bad spirits. It's
not attributed to the circumcision."
The practice damages girls in other ways. Sophia Noor of Womankind
Kenya says that many girls are so traumatized by the pain that they
never go back to school after they are circumcised. The economic and
social effects of girls' leaving school by age 7 are incalculable.
Despite these problems, the practice thrives. Many Muslims, and not
only Muslims, believe uncut women to be dirty. Women who can feel
sexual pleasure are considered impossible to control and so are
unmarriageable. "I know many families that have decided not to
circumcise their daughters," says Ms. Bagayoko. "But they can't talk
about it openly lest their daughters be shunned."
One strategy that has proved effective is persuading religious
leaders to dispel the widespread, erroneous belief that Islam calls
for circumcision. Ms. Shuriye finally laid down her knife after
Womankind brought liberal Islamic clerics to see her, who convinced
her that the practice was nowhere in the Koran. They also told her to
apologize to her victims and offer them camels as compensation. Ms.
Shuriye has no camels to give but has been begging forgiveness from
the women she cut. "I now feel like I've committed a sin against
God," she says. In Mali, where local groups are very active, one of
them, Sini Sanuman, just convinced one of the country's most
important Islamic leaders to begin speaking out against it — a huge
More than 14,000 people in Mali have so far signed a pledge to combat
circumcision. Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of Equality
Now, says that African attitudes seem to be evolving more rapidly on
circumcision than on other human rights problems.
"Progress won't happen without the community groups,"` she says. "But
it's the one issue where we're seeing a tiny, tiny light at the end
of the tunnel."