“Men couldn’t hear the girl’s screams,” states Bassi Boiro, the elderly woman responsible for mutilating generations of young girls in Sare Harouna, Senegal. Describing the procedure performed under cover of darkness outside the boundaries of her West African village, Boiro explains that men “are not part of this.” Assisted by four women tasked with holding down the arms and legs of each frightened victim, Boiro used a knife passed down through her family and later razor blades to carry out the ancient cultural tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM). One such victim of this practice is Aissatou Kande, one of the estimated 140 million women and girls around the world living with the painful consequences of FGM. Africa is currently home to over two-thirds of the world’s victims of FGM, a custom which is also practiced in the Middle East and Asia and is increasing in Europe and North America as immigrants bring the tradition into their new homelands.
Referred to as “female circumcision” or “cutting” within cultures that practice the custom, FGM involves slicing off part or all of the clitoris, and in many cases, the labia, usually before a girl reaches the age of fifteen. The procedure is often performed by midwives in non-sterile environments without anesthesia. Despite the fact it provides absolutely no health benefit, a growing number of health care providers are starting to offer the procedure. Complications include the risk of infection, hemorrhaging, and in some instances, death. Women who have had the procedure may suffer scarring, cysts, painful periods, recurring bladder and urinary infections, infertility, and increased pain and complications during childbirth. In addition, victims of female circumcision experience nothing but pain during sex.
Why would Aissatou’s parents subject their daughter to such a traumatic procedure that is, ironically, celebrated during a festive mass cutting ceremony? It seems the ancient custom, which predates both Islam and Christianity, has been used for centuries to control women’s sexuality. FGM is seen as a way to protect a girl from promiscuity by making sex painful and frightening, ensuring premarital virginity and marital fidelity. The practice is so ingrained in certain cultures that girls who are not circumcised are shunned, laughed at, and even refused enrollment in school. Uncircumcised girls are commonly compared to prostitutes and are subsequently rejected for marriage by potential suitors.
The tide, however, is beginning to change. Female genital mutilation is now internationally recognized as a human rights violation. Individual movements to end the practice are gaining momentum through the educational efforts of activist groups along with women who are becoming empowered to speak out against the harmful practice. Aissatou’s hometown of Sare Harouna has abandoned the practice of FGM, however her husband’s village, where she now lives, still practices the custom. But Aissatou swears she will never allow her daughters to be cut. Sare Harouna’s former cutter, Bassi Boiro, now understands the harm caused by the circumcisions she performed and embraces her community’s decision to stop the practice.
Senegal is an inspirational example of how culture change can happen. A growing movement of over 5,000 Senegalese villages have now vowed to end Female Genital Mutilation. Movements like the one in Senegal are among the many I hope to examine in my new film, Female– The World War on Women, as I explore where violence against women is happening in the world today and what is being done to end it. Click here to learn more about the new film and how you can help make it happen!