In Guinea, one girl’s story of violence reveals a commonplace nightmare
By Timothy La Rose
Forced to undergo a life-changing ritual, a young girl in Guinea looks for answers and speaks out against the damaging – and sometimes deadly – practice of female genital mutilation.
DUBREKA, Guinea, 26 November 2013 – Fatou, 12 years old, had just finished the school year and was looking forward to spending summer with friends, food and music, like girls everywhere. As she sat with her brothers discussing plans for the coming months, her aunt asked her to come for a walk.
Along the way, other girls with their aunts, mothers and grandmothers started joining them. They reached a house where the girls were given a bath.
"I thought that was strange, but I wasn't scared until they blindfolded me," Fatou says.
"After bathing, I was dressed in a towel and led into a room. I couldn't see, but I could hear the sobs and screams of the other girls."
Fatou had no idea what was happening to them – or what was about to happen to her.
"They start with the shortest girls first and work their way to the tallest."
Fatou was of average height for a 12-year-old, so she didn't have to wait long. The ceremony was traditional – meaning the 'doctor' used no anaesthesia, no sterilization and certainly no professional surgical instruments.
Many people have heard about female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C, also known as female circumcision or excision. And perhaps they've read graphic accounts of the methods used to perform this procedure.
If they were able to continue learning about FGM/C, they would be aware that not only does it fail to achieve its desired goal of decreasing the libido in young women, but – if they survive the initial violation – girls can suffer from infection and potential sterility, as well as lasting psychological trauma.
Most people don't know that in some countries, including Guinea, mothers, grandmothers and aunts make a special trip to the fabric shop to buy hundreds of metres of cloth. Together, while the girls attend their last few days of the school year, they sew veils, skirts and tops, all of them matching.
That is where the horror of female genital mutilation begins – with a trip to the market.
In Guinea, 96 per cent of girls and women between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM/C – almost 22 per cent before their fourth birthday, and 60 per cent before they turn 9.
With her mother's permission, Fatou spoke to UNICEF and TOSTAN, an international NGO focused on human rights education at the community level to end FGM/C. Several community elders and women in her hometown had changed their minds about the tradition after learning of its negative effects.
Many Guineans believe the procedure is a religious practice related to Islam. However, religious leaders and UNICEF studies refute the connection to faith. Nonetheless, although FGM/C predates the birth of Islam and Christianity and is not mandated by any religious scripture, the belief that it is a religious requirement contributes to the continuation of the practice in a number of settings.
Female genital mutilation has been illegal in Guinea since 1965, and the law was strengthened in 2000 through an amendment. Recently, UNICEF Guinea hosted a training session with law enforcement in Conakry on violence against children, where the issue of enforcement was raised.
"Female genital mutilation is traditional. The roots are very deeply held in the beliefs of the community," says Gendarmerie Instructor and Auxiliary of Justice Cécé Martial Lamah.
Despite existing laws, there has been little progress in eradicating the practice in Guinea. Law enforcement officials may understand the rights of the child and the serious consequences of female genital mutilation on girls and woman, but the law is extremely difficult to enforce.
"If there is an official complaint – say from the father about the grandmother taking his daughter to be cut – we try to make the grandmother understand," says Instructor Lamah. "We know that if the father takes action against the grandmother, it will divide the family.
People can't live in rural communities without their families. For this reason, it is also difficult to take a girl away from her family."
Fatou survived the procedure. She was dressed with the uniform that her aunt had made for her along with the other girls. They were marched into a hut where they were made to stay until the last girl was fully healed.
"Many were bleeding severely. Others were sick form the shock," she says. Every three or four days, the traditional 'doctor' checked on them. Three months later, she was led out of the hut, and it was almost time to start school again.
Girls like Fatou – the ones who have the courage to speak out – are rare in this country, where they inevitably face stigmatization. Fatou learned about why she was cut from TOSTAN because she wanted to understand what happened. Now she wants to tell her story and encourage others to speak out, too.
When asked what she would say to people about female genital mutilation in Guinea, she stops speaking her native Sosso and finds a word in French: "Arrêtez!" – Stop!