Thursday, March 7, 2013

Female Genital Mutilation:The Bloody Brutality of Traditional Practices

Girls in some African countries as well as those in the African Diaspora experience the excruciating pain associated with female gentile mutilation or FGM. I attended a two parallel events on the topic of FGM. The first parallel event was on Female Genital Mutilation, Anti-FGM Legislation in Africa and Local Communities Reactions, which was sponsored by The Women's Front of Norway. All of the speakers were incredible, but one speaker led the pack and her name was Chiku Ali. 

She was from the ethnic group Nyaturu located in Tanzania. Having just traveled to Tanzania in June,  with my sister Marchia and others from Love and Faith Christian Fellowship and Good Shepherd Fellowship, I felt a closeness to Chiku. So when she shouted Jambo, I shouted Jambo back! Jambo means "hello" in Swahili. The only other words in Swahili that I know are
nzuri= good
Habri gani= How are you?
Habri ya asubuhi = Good morning
Asante sana = Thank you
Bwana asifiwe = Praise the Lord
I share this because I want to learn more Swahili and more about the country of Tanzania. 
Chiku was the epitome of the people that I met in Tanzania. She was self assured, brilliant, beautiful and vibrant. Among the people of Nyaturu, Ihongo(meaning rites of passage) is practiced. Initially, Ihongo was celebrated and admired by all and the girls felt proud to go through this rite of passage.

There are several facets to Ihongo
Grand celebration 
FGM- female gentile mutilation
Tooth extraction - the middle bottom tooth
Burning the forehead

         In order to grasp a full understanding of the issue, Chiku provided us with historical references. Chiku explained to us that Tanzania gained their Independence from Britain in 1961 and by 1967 female genital mutilation was banned. However, the Nyatura did not adhere to the ban because in their context it was like another form of colonialism. To provide an analogy, it is like someone coming from off the street walking into your home unannounced and telling you what you should eat and where you should place your furniture. From my Western mindset, the eradication of FGM seemed like a good thing, but I feel we must be sensitive in our understanding of how a tradition regardless how bloody is embedded into the psychological fabric of any culture. 

Chiku continued to explain that in 1970 a larger campaign was launched to end tooth extraction and FGM. However, this time when the people continued to practice this they were "treated roughly, beaten and even jailed." 

After the larger campaign was launched in 1970, the Nyaturu elders (as did many other elders in other countries in Africa) decided that FGM would continue but there would be: 
No celebrations
No discussions surrounding the practice
No acknowledgement
The practice went underground

This is when Lawalawa was invented which means candy in Swahili. She explained the term "lawalawa" which sounded like "lover lover". The people believed  that the interference from the outside authorities caused a "curse" to come from the ancestors. As a result of this curse,  the children developed "swelling and burning in their private areas". It was believed that female gentile mutilation could to alleviate this swelling and burning from the young girls. FGM is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It is usually performed without anesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor, or scissors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has offered four classifications of FGM:
Type I, removal of the clitoral hood, almost invariably accompanied by removal of the clitoris itself (clitoridectomy);
Type II, removal of the clitoris and inner labia; and
Type III (infibulation), removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood—the fused wound is opened for intercourse and childbirth. Around 85 percent of women who undergo FGM experience Types I and II, and 15 percent Type III, though Type III is the most common procedure in several countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti. Several miscellaneous acts are categorized as Type IV. These range from a symbolic pricking or piercing of the clitoris or labia, to cauterization of the clitoris, cutting into the vagina to widen it (gishiri cutting), and introducing corrosive substances to tighten it.

Chiku explained to us that what is believed among the people who live in the village and what is true are two different things.  She explained that lawalawa is really caused by lack of water and poor hygiene. When small children have to urinate etc. they wipe themselves by sliding in the sand. And, older children use leaves. By wiping in the sand, this creates urinary tract infections which creates a burning sensation in the children. However, antibiotics are expensive. The family has to decide whether to buy food or spend the money on antibiotics. Food wins out and  so female gentile mutilation is performed to relieve the swelling and burning by what they believe is a curse from the ancestors or lawalawa.

When Chiku was a young girl she wanted to participate in Ihongo, her father sent her to boarding school. She was exposed to other girls who had not participated in this practice of FGM. When she returned home on summer break, she began to question her grandmother. Unfortunately, there is a lot of miseducation around female body. Her grandmother told her that if you are not circumcised
·      you will not get married and if you do get married
·      your 1st child will die
·      and eventually you will get sick and die

Chiku told us she was confused because the neighbor’s daughter had just died (she bleed to death) as a result of FGM. Chiku’s confusion led her to her father and when he heard that the neighbor’s daughter had died…he stated “no one will go through this process in my household.”

There are some positive tides of change happening regarding FGM. Chiku stated that education about the issue is leading the way towards eradication
·      There are several campaigns and flyers which state: “My wife is not circumcised and I love her still”
·      When girls return from boarding school they are given pamphlets to explain to them that FGM is not a rite of passage.

I went to another event on FGM, which was “Female Genital Mutilation: The African Diaspora, the European Network, FGM and the USA”
Dr. Tobe Levin, who is an associate professor from the W. E. B. Dubois Institute, Harvard U. for African and African American Research, shared with us the story of Khady. Kahady suffered genital mutilation at age 7, then she was forced into marriage at age 13 to a man who was over twice her age. As she got older, Khady experienced domestic violence from her husband and gained the strength to blow the “whistle on an immigrant community that serves men’s interests.” 
She is heavily involved in an courageous battle against FGM. Dr. Tobe Levin had to tell Khady’s story because she could not obtain a visa to come back to the UN. Dr. Levin explained that Khady’s book, Blood Stains: A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights
was a bestseller in France and it was translated in 18 languages; however, English speaking publishers would not translate the book into English. So, Dr. Levin created a publishing company UNCUT VOICES PRESS to allow Khady’s story to be told in English.

I learned that this story needs to be told in English because of the African Diaspora, FGM is done in the United States, Britain and Canada in hidden circles. One of the panelist Agatha Joyce Ogines from the IAC Norway explained to us that it is hard to know how many people are practicing this outside of Africa because it is taboo to discuss it and the lack of discussion is the challenge.

Istarlin Ismail founder of African Sky who is from Somali and living in the Netherlands states that she felt the issue should be addressed African to African because outside NGO’s and well meaning agencies can not properly address the issues of FGM. When she was 11 she begged her mother to circumcise her and she would not… so she went to her aunties and they would not so at 11 years old, Istarlin circumcised herself. She shared with us that by the time she was 15 , she deeply regretted what she had done to herself.

Dr. Peirrette Herzberger explained that Germany is mobilized against FGM. She explained that it is estimated that 4,000 girls are excised through the practice of FGM yearly when they returned home from boarding school. 94% of all Egyptian women in 1994 were excised and the practice continues today. However, there are an increasing number of women would desire to get their mutilated organs repaired and reconstructed.

Dr. Herzberger explained when girls return home on summer vacation they are given a booklet which is stating There is no place for FGM and other educational material. Dr. Herzberger’s group talks with people anonymously and provides funds so that "a woman can get the surgery to repair her organs if she desires."
These are the steps that one must go through to obtain a surgical procedure to get genital organs repaired:
·      The candidate first explains her desire to have the operation with someone from the agency
·      Then the candidate talks with a psychologist
·      Next a discussion is held with the candidate and an advisor
·      Then discussions are held with the family of the candidate, some families say no and encourage the ladies not to have the surgical repair because they fear that the community will ostracize them.

As I stated earlier when dealing with the topic of female genital mutilation we must be sensitive. There are a lot of variables and cultural and religious norms surrounding the subject FGM. But, there are a lot of people who have been bringing awareness to the issue since the 1970’s. I applaud them and there great work because no little girl should have to experience this form of violence.

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