Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"All that I am saying is do not cut"

While the campaign against female genital mutilation in Africa has made progress in some places, this piece makes clear that the fight is not so easy in other places.

When the president's wife sponsors the circumcision of 1,500 young girls to win votes for her husband, you know you've got a problem persuading ordinary people and the government that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a bad idea.

And when the woman who is now Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women's Affairs, threatens to "sew up the mouths" of those who preach against FGM, you realise that you are facing a really big uphill struggle.


This is actually somewhat astonishing. While it's not surprising for high-ranking officials to, in practice, give a wink and a nod to FGM, most usually go through the formality of opposing it in words. That overtly defending FGM is seen as a vote winner is quite disturbing.


But that has not dissuaded Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a gynaecologist in Sierra Leone, from campaigning against the practice for 30 years, ignoring death threats and angry protestors storming her clinic.

A crudely performed operation to remove the clitoris from adolescent girls forms a key part of the initiation ceremonies held by powerful, women-only secret societies that prepare young girls for adult life, marriage and motherhood in the West African country
, reports the UN's IRIN service.

She explained the difficulties and misunderstandings that often accompany her work.

Koso-Thomas, who came to Sierra Leone from Nigeria, sees nothing wrong with such 'bundu' societies and their initiation ceremonies but, on medical grounds, she and a handful of other women's rights campaigners want the circumcision ritual replaced by something less brutal and hazardous.

"People got me wrong at first. When I was going to the communities and sensitising them, they thought I was against their society," Koso-Thomas told IRIN. "But it is as a doctor that I started campaigning and sensitising people about the health hazards, because I saw all the complications."

"The real meaning of the bundu society is very good," she said. "It is where they train young girls to become women: they teach them how to sing, dance and cook ... girls who don't go to school learn how to use herbs and treat illnesses; they are taught to respect others."

"All that I am saying is, 'Continue with this training, but do not cut.' This is my message," said the gynaecologist who has written a book about the practice of FGM in Sierra Leone.

3 Comments:

At 3:07 AM, Blogger TheMalau said...

FGM is one of my pet-peeves... mainly because I have such dilemmas as to how to deal with them. The core of my problem, is the fact that I am a strong proponent of pride in African cultures and civilizations, while at the same time being quite a Liberal.

The problem with the initial Westren approach was that it was important to put an end to the excision practices as soon as possible. And they often did not stop to consider what psychological impact this would have on a society that has not yet made peace with the coniving and dominating tendencies of their forme "White" rulers. As a matter of course, the first reaction was always resistance, and not only because these were long held traditions, but also as a defiance to the "white woman's burden" attitude of some Western women rights activists.

The fact of the matter is, that if one studies community practices well enough, one can find tribal ways to convince the community leaders that the practice is actually harmful. It may take longer... but it works! I will simply direct people to the examples of increased succes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and I rest my case.

 
At 10:01 AM, Blogger Brian said...

Malau, Regarding your comment about FGM, you might be surprised to know that I agree wholeheartedly with you. (I couldn't tell from your note who you interpreted my post)

FGM, like most social mores, can only be changed from the inside not the outside. If a 23 year old white woman goes to a venerable elder and lectures him on what she knows is best and tells him what he ought to decree, it's obviously not going to go down very well. No one, anywhere in the world, likes to be lectured to by outsiders. Outsiders can help spur the initial phase of change, by getting people talking about it. But utlimately the decisions and the commitment have to come from inside a society. Things like anti-FGM and AIDS awareness have only succeeded in places where people from inside the societies have chosen to make the causes their own. That's why I pointed out an article that highlighted an anti-FGM activist in Sierra Leone who was not American or European, but Sierra Leonian.

When I was training for the Peace Corps, one of our Senegalese trainers told us a story. He said he was opposed to FGM personally but his wife vigorously supported it. He could say don't do it, but the wife was going to do it anyways. The wife felt that not having it done would make her unable to find a husband. Whether it was true or not (and maybe there was some truth to it, I don't know), that's what the wife believed and she was going to have it done to the daughter anyway. So the husband, against his own personal wishes, decided to facilitate the process. That way, he could at least make sure the procedure was done in a safe environment (as much as possible) with clean instruments and so forth. It surely wasn't a pleasant choice to make but it demonstrates the abiguity of a situation that defies easy answers.

 
At 4:04 AM, Anonymous Maame Esi said...

Aside the pain and the the harmfull effect, it is so cruel to subject a child as young as five, to such torture. A child who knows not write from wrong.Its a violation of human rights. It does not work when we just go on television and air our view or post them to the net or any other media. Let us get out there and educate people about the bad effects of FGM.

 

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