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Ending female genital mutilation and cutting in Senegal

© UNICEF/2004/Mbodj
Oureye Sall, a former traditional cutter from the village of Matam, and her assistant attend a public declaration ceremony where communities announce their decision to end FGM.

By Sarah Crowe and Molly Melching

Millions of women and girls in Africa and the Middle East are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) every year. On 24 November 2005 UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre will release a report providing new figures on just how many are affected, detailing the countries where FGM/C is still practiced, and describing the most promising approaches to ensure that it is abandoned.

MATAM, Senegal, 24 November 2005 – The international non-governmental organization Tostan is working in Senegal to create dialogue within communities about female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) through a holistic, basic education programme, conducted in local languages. As a result more than 1600 villages have collectively ended the practice of FGM/C – representing more than 30 per cent of the practicing population.

Here, one woman speaks about her community's decision to abandon the practice of FGM/C.

Ouraye Sall holds up a razor blade and begins to describe – with the detachment of a surgeon – how she once used the tools of her former trade. She breaks the razor clean in half, then snips off the sharp corners. There’s no irony in her voice when she describes the great care she went to avoid inflicting too much pain with the lethal instrument.

“I would normally cut off the sides so I would not hurt the girls and this half [of the blade] could [be used to] cut three girls,” says Oureye Sall, a former traditional cutter from the village of Matam in Senegal’s Northern region.  

She still carries razor blades wherever she goes, tucked away in her boubou, or gown. But now her blade has become her campaign tool: "Ten years ago I could never have imagined that I would be a leader in a movement to end the 'tradition' that most women in my community have undergone. Not only did I believe it was a religious obligation, but I myself was the one who operated on girls in all the surrounding communities."

© UNICEF video
Dieynaba Sarr came to the declaration with her 2-month-old baby girl. She hopes to help spread the word of the courage of other communities to end FGM.

Oureye is now outspoken about her commitment to ending FGM/C in her country. "Ever since I learned that FGM/C is not required by Islam and that it is a violation of girls' and women’s rights, I stopped practicing. It was when the Tostan program came to our village that I understood the dangers of the practice and began to question the need to continue. Our class called together the whole village and other communities where we marry our daughters and sons. Together we made the decision to end the practice." During these community meetings Oureye learned that practicing FGM/C can lead to haemorrhage, shock, infection and problems at childbirth. "We used to believe that these problems were caused by evil spirits. We learned differently in our education program."

Key findings

Female genital mutilation occurs on a far greater scale than expected:

  • Each year, in Africa alone, millions of girls are subjected to the procedure.

  • FGM/C is a deeply entrenched social convention. The social expectations surrounding the procedure are a major obstacle to families who might otherwise wish to abandon the practice.

  • FGM/C is not prescribed by any religion, even though religious justifications are often given for the practice.

  • FGM/C is a violation of the rights of the child to development, protection and participation.

Putting an end to a harmful practice

According to the government’s recent Demographic and Health Survey, FGM/C was practiced by 94 per cent of the population in the region of Matam where Oureye grew up. In 1998 her village participated in a public declaration involving 13 communities. Since that time – thanks to the collaboration of the Tostan basic education programme, the Government of Senegal and UNICEF – the practice of FGM/C has been stopped in the village.  

In Oureye’s village, women and adolescents heading a grassroots movement have been collaborating with religious and traditional leaders to abandon the practice. "I feel it is my responsibility to make others aware of the dangers of the tradition," says Oureye. "It is my way of saying I am sorry if I caused any harm to innocent girls."

Sabine Dolan contributed to this report from New York.




21 November 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on a Senegalese community’s decision to end the practice of female genital mutilation and cutting.

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