At a glance: Guinea

In Guinea, renouncing the family tradition of female genital mutilation

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© UNICEF Video
Mme. Doumbouya tosses her curved knife onto the dirt while speaking about her decision to abandon her former role as a ‘baradjeli’, a traditional performer of female genital mutilation or excision.

By Timothy La Rose

A woman in Guinea rejects a customary practice handed down to her through generations – and shows that communities are critical in raising awareness about the dangers of FGM/C.  

LABE, Guinea, 11 February 2014 – Madame Doumbouya was in her early twenties when her grandmother passed away. The heirlooms passed down to her included red robes, a traditional mirror encased in leather and decorated in seashells, and a sharp, curved knife.

Mme. Doumbouya was to take over her grandmother’s profession as a baradjeli – the Fulani term for the woman who performs the ritualized practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) on young girls.

“Families have traditional trades. Some are tailors, some are farmers. Excision was my family custom,” she explains.

There was no formal education programme for her profession. She learned the techniques on the job. “It is a matter of seeing how it’s done and overcoming the fear to do it yourself,” she says. “I never had any medical training.”

She was hardly compensated for this difficult work. “I did get paid, but the money was more of a gesture. The people who would bring the girls would give some tokens of appreciation.”

A competition

During her time as a practicing baradjeli, Mme. Doumbouya cut more girls than she can remember. They were mostly 7 to 10 years old. They came to her in groups or individually, always escorted by family members who insisted on the procedure. 

“Usually it’s the mothers or aunts or the grandmothers who bring the girls to get cut,” she says. “The men do not bring the girls. The men go with the boys.”

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© UNICEF Video
Village women attend the event at which Mme. Doumbouya spoke. “For the ones that I’ve already cut, I cannot repair it,” she said. “But I can stop doing it. I will never do it again.”

FGM/C is a rite of passage in Guinea, where 96 per cent of girls are cut – most before age 15.  Following the procedure, the community where Mme. Doumbouya practiced would hold big celebrations.

“When the girls are coming out of the process, when they are healed, it is a big ceremony. The parents spend a lot of money, even more than in a marriage, because now their parents want their girls to be the most well-dressed,” she explains. “It’s sort of a competition.”

Raising awareness

As part of the global fight to end FGM/C, UNICEF in Guinea supports organizations that promote awareness-raising activities about the realities of FGM/C. UNICEF partner organization Tostan has had notable success in teaching communities to reject FGM/C – 74 communities recently made public commitments to renounce it entirely. With the support of religious and political leaders, villagers declared that they would never allow FGM/C in their communities again.

After many years as a baradjeli, Mme. Doumbouya denounced her family’s traditional practice. “I used to think that cutting girls was for the benefit of the community, but I learned from Tostan that I was just hurting them,” she says. 

Before a village gathering, she spoke publically about her regrets in participating in cutting. She tore off the red robes of the baradjeli, tossed the curved knife onto the dirt, and threw down her mirror, a charm used to give her confidence to perform her duties.

“For the ones that I’ve already cut, I cannot repair it. But I can stop doing it. I will never do it again,” she said. “I ask all baradjeli to stop giving the girls more pain because there is already enough pain in a woman’s life. There is pain during pregnancy and delivery, and that is enough for a woman. Don’t give them more.”

Effective advocacy

What this ceremony and the story of Mme. Doumbouya demonstrate is that community-based advocacy for human rights can work. Despite inheriting a tradition her family had followed for generations, Mme. Doumbouya was not aware of the risks of FGM/C to girls. She was not aware that cutting does not achieve the desired intention. She was not aware that FGM is not a religious requirement. And she had no idea that it has been illegal in Guinea since 1965.

Community empowerment activities that educate people on the dangers of FGM/C, both physical and psychological, as well as programmes for the former baradjeli to provide gainful employment, are not costly – but unfortunately a funding shortfall in Guinea has prevented the larger expansion of successful programmes like the ones UNICEF and Tostan have established here.


 

 

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