For decades now some of us have been disgusted by the cruel tradition of chopping off private parts of young girls, technically known as female genital mutilation (FGM). In mid 1980s when well known names began raising their voices against FGM, African American writer, Alice Walker, stood out. The award winning Ms Walker eventually published Possessing the Secret Joy, a novel describing “a fictional African nation where female genital mutilation is practised.”
These protests however, have no effect without government and law enforcing institutions.
Known as ukeketaji in Tanzania, the illegal practice has been condemned by authorities since the times of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and his widow, Mama Maria. According to statistics issued by FGM 28 Too Many, almost all regions with the exception of Zanzibar and Mtwara entertain FGM. Leading regions are Arusha, Manyara, Singida and Dodoma with an average 80 per cent practice rate; followed by Mara, Kilimanjaro, Morogoro and Iringa.
This is disturbing information. Like the killing of albinos, those affected are usually poor and badly educated villagers. Add the fact that in rural villages (where majority of Africans live) the main labour force is women. And it is some of them who practise FGM. These women cannot read this newspaper piece right now. It is left to professionals, policy makers and even female intellectuals to act.
In her essay on “Women and Sustainable Development”, Ruth Meena argues that women in Africa contribute 80 per cent of labour while only owning ten per cent of the land. Ms Meena paraphrases Mwalimu Nyerere:
“It would be appropriate to ask our farmers, especially men, how many hours a week or how many weeks in a year they work. The truth is that women in the villages work very hard, 12-15 hours in a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays. Women who live in the villages work harder than everybody else in Tanzania. But men who live in the villages are on leave for half of their lives.”
Apologists for FGM allege it is a rite of passage; it cements a woman’s worth and identity and discourages sleeping around. Many years ago I bumped into a Sudanese lady somewhere in Europe. She was running away from her husband- a travelling salesman. Making sure she remained faithful, her female organ was sealed, leaving only an opening to urinate or for menstruation. Upon returning another operation was carried out. She was opened for sexual intercourse which she alleged “only satisfied him.”
The same procedure continued when she had children. Her genitalia was sliced for birth then sealed. She was in permanent pain, she said; pain when she slept, pain when she went to the bathroom, pain when she walked and worked; agonising pain when she made “love” to her husband. She had to flee to Europe, where she is among the lucky few who undergo surgery to restore normality.
Now, here’s the problem
As we speak, those defending FGM are actually female family members. It is this aspect that makes it so hard to stop. How do you protect a five year old girl from being mutilated when the very guardian she is meant to depend on thinks it is correct?
The chief object of FGM is to reduce sexual pleasure of women through four different methods.
First, removal of the clitoris which is as vital as a male organ. Also called clitoridectomy.
Second type is slicing away the labia minora (vaginal lips), the clitoris and its prepuce.
Third and most severe is “infibulation” as described by the Sudanese woman above. The vaginal walls are narrowed and sealed. Only a small hole is left for periods and urine.
Last is a process of inserting objects into the woman’s genitalia; piercing, pricking, etc. According to the World Health Organisation 90 per cent of FGM are types one and two and only 10 per cent infibulation.
So how do you ensure this barbaric practice is stopped?
Most world organisations including Amnesty International and UN development agencies have condemned it. UNICEF for example helps monitor FGM and recently said while 125 million girls have been cut; 30 million girls are at risk in the next decade. UNICEF deputy Executive Director, Geeta Rao Gupta calls on everyone – male, female, young and old- to speak out against FGM.
Efforts in France have seen at least 100 convictions while all baby girls are thoroughly checked until they are six years old. In the UK a law that was passed in 1985 and reviewed in 2003 makes FGM a crime. After 30 years, last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced- two men would be in court next month. London based surgeon Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena, 31, and Hassan Mohammed, 40, are charged with intentionally encouraging FGM.
The London case has been applauded (and like what has been happening in France) ought to be copied by governments across Africa, the Middle East and the rest of the world.