|© UNICEF Bissau/2007|
|Women’s rights advocate and Member of Parliament Nhima Cisse tells her story of female genital mutilation, a harmful practice she is determined to end.|
By Sylvana Nzirorera
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, 13 November 2007 – Nhima Cisse, now 42, was 8 years old when she was cut. “I can never forget the pain and trauma I went through that day,” she says.
She had been taken to her aunt’s home in the capital, Bissau. “We were five girls lining up in front of a closed room,” she recalls. “Nobody knew what was going on in that room. We were tricked.
“When came my turn to enter, I found the four other girls in a corner, crying and bleeding,” she continues. “I got frightened and wanted to run away. A woman grabbed me and made me seat on a small chair, and abruptly opened my legs. Before I realized, that woman has already cut me.”
Ms. Cisse’s aunt, who was supervising the operation, told her not to cry – and said that female genital mutilation, or cutting (FGM/C), was her only chance to “get a husband and benefit from an honourable marriage.”
The pain persists
Today, Ms. Cisse – a women’s rights advocate who was elected to Parliament in 2005 – still carries this experience with her. “My husband and I have been married 20 years now,” she says, adding that she still suffers terrible pain despite two surgeries to repair scarring.
“My first baby lived for only 24 hours,” says Ms. Cisse. “It took me 20 days to get out of the hospital because of anaemia as a consequence of haemorrhage after giving birth.”
Ms. Cisse had three other children who survived, thanks in part to her ability to give birth abroad with medical assistance that is unavailable to most women in Guinea-Bissau.
Rooted in tradition
Hundreds of thousands of girls and women have been victims of FGM/C in Guinea-Bissau. The practice is so deeply rooted in tradition that many people believe it is a religious obligation prescribed by the Koran. But some Islamic organizations, which have been working with UNICEF on social development issues at the community level, are starting to point out that the practice is not required by Islam.
|© UNICEF Bissau/2007|
|As part of a traditional ceremony initiating girls into womanhood, FGM/C can create irreversible, lifelong health risks.|
As part of a traditional ceremony initiating girls into womanhood, FGM/C involves cutting away part or all of the external female genitalia, which can create irreversible, lifelong health risks. The consequences include psychosexual and psychological problems, sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth.
In Guinea-Bissau, FGM/C is mainly performed on children and adolescents between 6 and 14 years of age – though it has also reportedly been performed on infants in recent years.
Support from UNICEF and partners
Ms. Cisse is committed to continuing to fight for FGM/C. “I am not afraid,” she says. “I will do whatever it takes to have this traumatizing practice stop. This razor blade caused more than physical wounds in a woman’s life.”
Before the country’s civil war in the late 1990s, a National Committee against Harmful Practices – supported by UNICEF, the UN Population Fund, Plan International and others – conducted FGM/C awareness campaigns in partnership with local non-governmental organizations.
Due to political instability and a lack of funding, these activities have not been sustained, but the government has stated its intention to address the problem – starting with a national consultation on FGM/C that was recently organized with the participation of local NGOs, community groups and religious organizations.
‘A law is needed’
Meanwhile, Ms. Cisse and fellow Members of Parliament have been working on a draft bill to condemn the harmful practice. The bill is now on the table for the Speaker of the Parliament to put on the agenda for the next session of the National Assembly.
“I am aware that the law by itself is not going to change this entrenched cultural practice among Bissau-Guineans, but I believe a law is needed,” Ms. Cisse says.
She notes that local authorities have to approve the construction of special ‘barracks’, generally in the bush, where FGM/C is carried out. In addition, the authorities are aware that hundreds of young girls have to suspend school for months to attend the ceremony and recover; some of them never go back because of the trauma they have suffered.
“This must stop,” Ms. Cisse asserts.