Harmful Traditional Practices
Unmasking the Pain of FGM/C to Stop its Spread to New Age Groups
Mariam watches her daughter, Assetou, shyly leave their sitting room, before she explains one of her biggest regrets.
It was three years ago, when she let her nine-year-old daughter, Assetou, undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), whereby a “traditional circumciser”, cut off her clitoris using a razor blade.
Assetou’s grandmother took her along. It had seemed the normal thing to do. There were other young girls who joined her. But much to Mariam’s horror, the night after Assetou had undergone the procedure, she haemorrhaged. In a panic, Mariam sent for the elderly woman who had cut her. “She managed to stop the bleeding for a while using herbs, but then it started again,” explains Mariam. “I was really worried. I thought my daughter would die because of what had been done to her.”
Assetou has since been to a medical doctor to make sure there was no permanent damage. “I will never allow this to happen again to any of my children,” says Mariam, a mother of seven. It is estimated that 85 per cent of women in Mali have undergone FGM/C. It used to be confined to teenage children, but now females of all ages are being subjected to it, including married women. According to the Demographic Health survey carried out in 2006, 77 per cent of the girls are cut before reaching five years of age.
Although there is no law against FGM/C in Mali, the multichannel communication strategy to end this custom, and other harmful traditional practices performed on children in Mali, especially on girls, is being stepped up with support from UNICEF. In the past, communication activities have focused on the use of radio and television spots as well as talks on the hazards of the practice during literacy classes. Recently, street theatre in which the audience participates, and the use of a digital mobile cinema showing stories about women’s rights, health and FGM/C complications on a massive outdoor screen have proved effective ways to draw massive crowds and to encourage communities to talk about these issues.
Evidence suggests that there is a reduction in the more extreme form of FGM/C — infibulation—; this usually entails the vaginal wall being cut and narrowed, leaving only a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, as well as the removal of the clitoris. Infibulation, also commonly called “Pharaonic Cutting”, can lead to serious complications including recurrent urinary infections, and excruciating pain while having sexual relations and during childbirth. The vaginal passage can completely close, resulting in a still birth or the death of a pregnant woman. Sy Kadidia Touré, a member of the organization, “Action Mopti”, says that, “it is not easy to change people’s behaviour. It is a long process.” Pressure from other women, particularly grandmothers who have themselves undergone FGM/C, and religious leaders keep the practice deeply entrenched in Malian society.
Benkadi, which means in local language “the benefits of the living in harmony”, is one of the women’s groups targeted through the communication strategy. They meet in the heart of the bustling town of Mopti. Four out of the six women discussing with Touré are fervently in favour of FGM/C. Camara Koné speaks for them. “It helps the woman control herself. Women who are not circumcised have a high need for men and one man will not satisfy her. She can become very aggressive.”
And in a nearby home, a group of three religious leaders repeat a similar argument. “This part of the woman (the clitoris) is dirty, and when it is cut off, it reduces her sexual desire. In our culture a man can have four wives, so if she has a high sexual need, she will not be able to wait for a man while he is with his other wives.”
Touré talks to the religious leaders about some of the dangers of FGM/C. One of the leaders, Youssouf Guindo, concedes that, “This is some information that we had not had before.” They want to hear more.
Fatoumata Sanogo, a traditional circumciser practicing in Mopti, is more sceptical. She says that the girls and women she has cut have never had serious complications. She learnt the practice from her grandmother and depends on it for her living, charging 2,500 CF Francs (equivalent to 5 USD) for each child. “On a good day, I can see 30 children. I used to perform it on 18-year-old girls, but now the ages are changing. I do it on babies and married women as well.” She says that a married woman who has not been “cut” can be “teased” by a second wife who has been. She admits that it is painful; “but probably not as painful as when you cut other parts of the body.” It is a common belief in traditional communities that if you are not cut, you will not find a husband.