Tortured Tradition

A movement in Africa seeks to end the age-old-and, to some, barbaric-practice of female circumcision

March 26, 2000|By Lauren Goodsmith

Women from one Senegalese village visit neighboring communities, urging them to abandon the age-old practice of female genital cutting. In the mountains of Guinea, village excisors lay down their knives in public renunciation of their traditional role. And in Egypt, individuals who have privately rejected the practice, quietly defying tradition, learn that they are not alone.

Separated by thousands of miles but united in their resolve, these examples signal the start of a new movement across Africa --one that may mean a better future for women and girls across the continent.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 130 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital cutting. Female genital cutting -- also called female circumcision or excision -- refers to a range of procedures in which the female genitalia is cut or altered. Although practiced primarily in Africa, female genital cutting also exists in parts of Asia and the Near East. Local customs governing female genital cutting differ widely. In some areas, it is performed on infants or young girls; in others, it is associated with a young woman's coming-of-age or initiation into secret societies.

The procedure is usually carried out by local practitioners -- traditional excisors, village midwives or barbers -- with primitive instruments under unsanitary conditions. In some areas, doctors perform female genital cutting, ostensibly to ensure better hygiene and less risk of health problems for the female, but also as a source of supplementary income. Opponents see this "medicalization" of female genital cutting as a dangerous trend, propagating a clinically indefensible practice that harms girls' health and violates their basic human rights.

Most parents who have their daughters excised believe they are acting in their child's best interest. They are convinced that excision will help ensure chastity and increase a girl's marriage potential. To some, non-excision implies "uncleanliness" and would leave girls susceptible to health and hygiene problems. Indeed, some traditional names for the practice euphemistically evoke "cleanliness" or "purification."

In fact, female genital cutting can result in infection, shock, hemorrhage and death. Long-term consequences may also include difficulties with intercourse and childbirth. Added to these effects are the psychological and emotional trauma brought on by the procedure.

The practice of female genital cutting is often difficult for Westerners to understand, but in many cultures it has long been unquestioned. Its origins run deep, and are not fully understood. "Tradition" and religious observance are the reasons most often cited for carrying out female genital cutting, and the line between the two is often blurred. Female genital cutting exists among people of many different faiths, for example, but is not, in fact, required by any religion. It appears to be a strong cultural tradition among Muslims in several countries, yet the practice predates Islam. Indeed, it has been traced back to the time of the Pharaohs. What does seem clear is that female genital cutting is linked with efforts on the part of largely patriarchal societies to control women's behavior, bodies, and lives.

Many local, regional and international organizations have long been active in trying to end female genital cutting through public education efforts. Change has been slow, and the problem has sometimes seemed unyielding. Recently, however, there have been some striking breakthroughs, sparked by average individuals taking a stand against this centuries-old custom.

The most extraordinary example of change has taken place in Senegal. Beginning with a decision made by a single village, no fewer than 148 communities have now publicly renounced the practice of female genital cutting.

The seeds of change were planted several years ago. In 1991, a nongovernmental organization named Tostan ("breakthrough" in the Wolof language) launched a program to improve educational opportunities for village women and promote community self-development. Tostan's holistic approach links learning with problem-solving, based on analysis and discussion of real-life concerns. The program addresses material and financial management of village projects as well as health issues, hygiene, and human rights.

Women in the village of Malicounda Bambara took part in Tostan's program in 1995-96. When the issue of female genital cutting was first raised during their sessions on women's health, no one wanted to discuss it. Gradually, though, the women began to talk about their experiences, many for the very first time. They discovered that female genital cutting was a factor in problems they had attributed to other causes. And as they considered female genital cutting in light of the human rights and health information they had gained, the women of Malicounda began to question what they had never questioned before.

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