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Lifting the taboo

 

About 130 million women and girls are subjected to female genital mutilation, according to United Nations figures. Every day, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, at least 6,000 women and girls have their clitoris or external genital parts removed, often with unsterilized blades.

 

Since 2004, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has made combating female genital mutilation a priority. In 2008 and 2009, National Societies in West and Central Africa are stepping up efforts to raise awareness about its harmful effects on the health of tens of thousands of women, including increasing the risk of HIV.

In Cameroon, it is estimated that one in five women is circumcised. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine spoke to Cameroon Red Cross Society volunteers, Pauline Gong Ounane (PGO) and Fatime Majuini (FM), who was circumcised at the age of 7.

Why did you become involved in the campaign to end female genital mutilation?
FM: I wanted to stop other women suffering like I did. I bled so heavily when my clitoris was removed that my grandmother had to take me to the hospital. Afterwards I was in constant discomfort from the scarring and when I had my first child, the labour lasted four days. I have five children and every time I gave birth the wound opened and caused immense pain.

How do you get the message across?
PGO: Fatime is Muslim, a fluent Arab speaker and comes from the areas most affected by female genital mutilation. When she relates what happened to her and how her health suffered afterwards, people really listen. She is incredibly courageous as the issue is extremely taboo.

What are the taboos surrounding female genital mutilation?
FM: My grandmother told me that if I didn’t have it done, people would laugh at me and I would not find a husband.
PGO: The procedure reduces women’s sexual sensitivity, so the likelihood of the women having sex outside marriage is reduced and the honour of the family is saved.

How do you persuade communities that it should be stopped?
PGO: We emphasize the health impacts: how women can suffer from serious infection and that during childbirth she can even lose the child she is carrying.

What about the women who carry out the practice?
PGO: We don’t denounce the women who do this, but work to try to help them. They can earn a lot of money; we give them microcredit loans to finance alternative livelihoods. They retrain as gardeners or midwives, or raise animals and grow crops to sell. Between March 2007 and March 2008, we helped 100 practitioners.

What difference has your work made?
PGO: When we first went to these villages, we were chased away. The men were angry that we wanted to stop a traditional social practice and hurled insults at us. I really did not want to go back and felt very uncomfortable. It was especially difficult as I have not been circumcised so did not feel that I had much credibility. But since Fatime joined our team, there has been a change. The communities listen to us. You can see the light going on in their eyes when Fatime speaks about her difficulties giving birth. The men and women both realize that the practice is extremely harmful and tell us that they are not going to put their daughters through this ordeal.
FM: It is very difficult for women to speak openly about this issue. Traditional women are expected to stay at home and bring up the children. But I knew that I did not want my two daughters to suffer like I did. It was so important to break the pattern of suffering and abuse, and what is more, I have the full backing of my husband.

 


A meeting on female genital mutilation in Diabougo, Senegal.
©REUTERS / FINBARR O’REILLY, COURTESY www.alertnet.org

Claire Doole
Claire Doole is a freelance writer based in
Switzerland.

 

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