The New African Woman is taking a stand. We believe Female Genital Mutilation has no place in this, nor future centuries. This is the first in our series in which we will flash a spotlight on the effects of harmful tradition that many, including its victims, believe has yielded no known health or social benefits to advance the status of African women. Rather the contrary.
Girls are still forced to undergo the old-age traditional practice that many believe is way past its sell-by-date but which still permeates across Africa, causing alarming harm to future generations of mothers.
Prominent and unsung anti-FGM campaigners alike – many of whom are victims and survivors of the practice – are increasingly speaking out for its total elimination. Here are just a few.
IN GUINEA, EVERY MARRIED WOMAN IS CUT
Enforcing laws against FGM is absolutely fine, but there is no point in criminalising someone if their actions were out of ignorance. So, it is about education, and creating conversations. People need to speak about the topic. Although the majority of the cutters and decision makers are women, men and boys also need to understand the implications of this practice. For example in Guinea, every married woman is cut. Why? Because no man in Guinea would marry a woman who is not cut. She is not a “proper woman” and has no value if she has not been cut. How do we change that cultural perception? We do that by continuing the conversation; we teach better values, humane values that are not harmful to girls and women. Values that empower girls and women. These values can only be achieved by sustaining the conversation and not being silent about FGM. Mariama Camara (Guinea), social entrepreneur, co-founder of There Is No limit Foundation.
IT’S ALL ABOUT PATRIARCHAL LENIENCE
As someone whose genitals were mutilated when I was one week old, and forced to get married at the age of 15, I think I am very, very fortunate to be here in front of you. One in three women at some point in their life is a victim of violence against women. This violence is the lasting trauma that often fills women with guilt, blame, and disbelief in humanity and oneself.
Violence against women is global and systematic, it is something as common as ascribing to gender roles and believing that a women’s place is in the kitchen, to practices as abhorrent as FGM. Violence against women also presents itself as a solution to problems burdened by patriarchal lenience in society, this includes subjecting girls to early marriage in order to prevent the same promiscuity that’s encouraged in boys and men. Violence against women is also the lagging of women’s health research and not taking women’s pain as something serious, it is calling a woman hysterical or crazy or a liar, whenever she speaks of her lived experiences.
Violence on women stems from society’s refusal to accept women and girls as whole and human instead of properties and objects moulded into their desire. It is building an organisation on your own and still getting told that you are successful because you are pretty, or being called an unfit parent for daring to make a life outside the home. As a child bride and FGM survivor, standing here today wasn’t in my wildest dreams, and most women and girls like me will never make it this far. I stand here today to represent a forgotten population, girls and women who are footnotes in research papers, who never make it past lunch conversations. I represent their suffering, I represent their pain, their success, their strength, their determination, and their triumphs. I believe in a future where girls and women can say no without repercussion, where their words are heard, and their voices are listened to. We do not have to be flowers whose only job is to be pleasing to others until we wilt and die. We are not the conception, and our only display of pride should not be sown vaginas and shut legs. There’s no imperfection in our anatomy, and there should be no limit to our survival. It is easy to tell girls and women to get over it, and that structure of sexism and violence against women is a lazy excuse, but this lazy excuse is why 200 million women live with FGM, this lazy excuse is why girls and women have defended themselves after rape instead of receiving appropriate care and support.
We’re failing our girls and women at an outstanding level, and it will not get better unless we’re willing to listen to women and girls, and deem their experiences as valid. Until we act upon what we say and truly show that we care. Until the birth of a daughter is celebrated as much as the birth of a son. Until then, we will continue to fail our women. Until the education of a girl is a right rather than a privilege we are failing our women. Until child marriage is a forgotten thing of the past, and girls and women are equipped with choice, we are failing them. Until no girl dies or suffers as a result of FGM then we will continue to fail our women and girls.
So much change can occur just by adjusting everyday attitudes, but bigger change comes when we invest in women and girls themselves. By funding survival-led grassroots organisations that go into the unheard community and make their voices heard. Look at how much women and girls are able to achieve without standing on the tools men are gifted with, how much more can be done when we give them equal opportunities? It is no longer about asking to be let in, the message is simple. We are here and we are ready, we will continue to be brilliant, bright and powerful in the midst of all adversity. Jaha Dukureh (Gambia), anti-FGM activist. Founder Safe Hands (speaking at the inaugural United States of Women in Washington DC).
LET THE YOUTH LEAD FGM CAMPAIGNS
After extensively studying the issue of FGM, I started working with nine universities in Mogadishu (Somalia), convincing them to implement FGM in their health studies. When this was approved, I was able to give lessons on FGM to both students and lecturers, who in turn began to teach and raise awareness on the issue in their communities. I am currently working on the 100 Young Ambassadors Initiative, which will be a way to allow young people to be the message bearers and the educators on the issue of FGM.
I have been a founding member of United Youth of Ireland, where among many other issues, FGM has been one of our main topics. I learnt, through my involvement with this group, that younger people are more accepting and open to other’s views. We need to let the next generation get involved on this crucial issue. Ifrah Ahmed (Somalia), social activist. Adviser to Somalia PM. Founder of Ifrah Ahmed Foundation.
AFRICANS DOING IT THEMSELVES
As Africans, we want the world to know that we are tackling FGM ourselves. We don’t want “experts” coming to tell us what Africa needs to do. It is really important that we tell our own story. In our campaign, we don’t use words like ‘horrific’, ‘horrible’ or ‘barbaric’ because the practice is not done in that concept. It is usually attached to better values, caring and loving, yes, it is a very harmful tradition, but it is not intended to be harmful.
So when approaching the issue of FGM, it is not about victimising our women. It is about working with the facts and fluently changing the mindsets. Depicting women in vulnerable images is not part of our campaign, victimising is in no way empowering for African women. African women are naturally authoritative and empowering, and they need to be portrayed as such. Women who were subjected to FGM are survivors; take me for example, I have become a greater person, and FGM doesn’t define who I am.
Also when we fight FGM, we don’t focus on the cultural aspect, we highlight the human rights violations and health implications. It is important to emphasise that it is the body’s integrity and human rights of the woman and girl which is being violated. In Africa we have this saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and we need to raise successful women – intact – without their body parts being removed just because they are women.
FGM is also a global issue, it happens in most continents, and as such, requires a global approach. It is not a fight for one person or one government or one entity.
But we need to do everything from African women’s perspective, giving the affected communities the voice, the know-how, the expertise to challenge the negative issues of FGM. As a social activist and pan-Africanist, I am using my story and contributing in developing the right policy for tackling FGM in the UK. I ensure that Africa is portrayed properly by providing the African narrative to African issues and changing the way the West approaches FGM, and correcting their perception. Alimatu Dimonekene (Sierra Leone), social & community activist. Founder, Project ACEi.
MUSIC CAN CHANGE MINDSETS
The issue of FGM is definitely about educating and engaging with the affected communities and changing perceptions and the mindset, more so that of men who refuse to accept women who are not cut.
In Senegal we have a powerful way of using art to promote human rights, especially in the way we talk to women and children about their rights. But we are trying to increase the involvement of young people. And Hip Hop certainly works, it is a good way to put a message across without making people feel condemned and ashamed of what they are doing. You make a nice song, young people listen to it, dance to it and get the message. My objective is to reach young people and prepare them to be better parents, and what better way to reach them than what they like most these days – music. For me it is one of the best tools to use in the FGM campaign.
I also do a ‘door to door’ programme where artists I have trained (in Senegal as well as in Guinea) become communicators and message-bearers in their communities. These youth engage their communities better because they are local and speak the same language. If I am campaigning in Guinea as someone from Senegal who lives in Germany, the locals will just dismiss me as a stranger, a “westernised” woman.
The third campaign I do is work with kids in schools, through arts and crafts which discuss sensitive issues [including FGM]. For example, we can make paper puppets, enabling the discussion without making them feel ashamed.
In my campaigns I really make sure that everyone understands that I am not there to antagonise or fight them, but sensitise, inform, learn and talk about their rights and how to protect them. And when I ask them what they need protection from most, the issues of sexual abuse and early pregnancy come on top, but they also mention FGM. While with sexual abuse I am able to explain that they have a fundamental right to protect themselves, and I can explain the consequences of childbirth in early marriages, on FGM I have to do it differently. I bring a nurse or midwife with me as well as an Imam. The Imam helps to dismantles the connection between Islam and FGM when we are having the discussion.
All this is important because FGM is worsening. Now that an increasing number of African governments have introduced laws against the practice, a lot of it is being done in more discreet ways. The laws are actually driving FGM underground. It is making our work as campaigners more difficult. Now babies as young as a week old are being cut. Fatou Diatta aka Sister Fa (Senegal), rapper and anti-FGM activist.
EDUCATE TO ERADICATE
In my view, it is the lack of understanding that affects everyone: the mum, the dad, children or grandparents. Mothers who allow their children to be cut are also victims, but don’t realise that they are, neither do they realise it is child abuse and illegal. They don’t understand the impact it has had on their physical and emotional health. And that’s why education is important. They need to know and understand the implications, they need to understand the connection FGM has on most of the health and emotional issues they may be experiencing. Divorce, domestic violence and depression, they all stem from FGM.
The youth are most important, they are the next generation and they need our protection. We can protect our youth by keeping them informed. Let’s feed them with the right information, information that will serve them in the long run. Our youth’s understanding of the risks and consequences of these practices is very important.
With my campaign here in Britain where FGM practising is very prevalent, I work with schools, police, local governments, medical officials, health workers, social workers and youth in particular. Britain is my doorstep, and has been for almost 27 years, we all have to start at our doorsteps, and expand our ourtreach later, which I intended to do, but right now I am doing my campaign right here in Britain.
I am also doing what I can do through my book, Cut. It is a book of hope and information. It took a lot of courage, but it is worth sharing. FGM disrupts a child’s life, it takes away their freedom, breaks their confidence. It is pure violence, violence against girls and women, and for me education is the way forward in eradicating FGM. Hibo Wardere (Somalia), anti-FGM campaigner, author of ‘Cut’.