DAKAR, SENEGAL – For a woman in her 50s, Madina Daff still cannot get over her teenage years. She suffered all of them in agony and shame.
Madina, barely in her adolescence, was subjected one of the most severe forms of female genital mutilation (FMG) — infibulation. This involves cutting parts of the vagina and repositioning exposed tissue to create a seal that narrows the opening of the female organ to a tiny hole that just about allows for passing of urine and menstrual blood.
Madina was too young to understand what was happening to her. Like all other young girls in her ethnic Fulani community in Mali, she was required to go through this rite of passage before the onset of puberty.
“All I know is that I had severe problems immediately after being excised. I remember going through a very agonizing cycle of puberty. I remained covered in pain and humiliation,” says Madina.
Infibulated girls often have their legs bound together for anything up to four weeks to allow for freshly fused tissue to heal into a barrier. For families it is a seal of guarantee that secures girls against any sexual encounter prior to marriage and protects the family honor.
“I cannot even explain the feeling of terror that runs through infibulated girls’ minds thinking of marriage,” says Madina. On the day of their wedding, brides undergo another painful surgery to reverse the effects of infibulation. This involves cutting open the connecting tissue created by infibulation to restore the vaginal opening to enable sexual intercourse with their husbands.
In most cases “cutting” is done by a traditional practitioner without any anaesthesia and little care for hygiene. Razors, knives or scissors are used and they are rarely sterilized. The surgery takes place wherever it is convenient — from out in the open to the bathroom floor.
“It is only after completing this procedure an excised bride is considered ‘free’. She usually has her first sexual experience the very same night after cutting,” says Madina.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls worldwide are subjected to intentional mutilation of their genitalia for nonmedical reasons on the basis of a variety of traditional beliefs and cultural practices.
According to the World Health Organization there are about 140 million girls and women across the world currently living with the consequences of genital mutilation. The majority of these are in Africa where FMG is practiced in 28 countries.
An estimated 101 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone varying forms of genital mutilation in Africa. In countries like Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia and Guinea almost 9 out of every 10 girls undergo genital mutilation.
In most places where it is practiced, genital mutilation is considered an essential part of raising a girl and preparing her for womanhood and marriage. With its direct link to beliefs about premarital virginity and marital fidelity, the pressure is intense to control sexual behavior and prevent any “illicit” sexual acts.
The degrading treatment is preserved and promoted as a cultural ideal of femininity and modesty. The girls often are told it makes them “clean” and “beautiful”.
There are no health benefits associated with FMG. Thousands suffer health complications and damage to their healthy and normal genital tissues as a result of the procedure. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, bleeding and infection whereas lifelong consequences range from conditions interfering with natural bodily functions to infertility, childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
Recently 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea, died in a clinic in Egypt when a local doctor performed a procedure to slice off her clitoris as instructed by her family. The death of the teenager has caused an uproar in Egypt where FMG is legally banned but still widely practiced affecting more than two-thirds of girls.
From verbal threats and physical force — all sorts of methods are used to coerce unwilling girls into submission.
“I will never forget that day. My mother woke me up very early in the morning and told me firmly to get ready for circumcision,”says 13-year-old Ahlam. “Immediately, an old woman entered the room and got a razor out of her bag. My mother held my arms very tight so that I could not move. The woman used her razor to circumcise me. I cried loudly, but nobody listened, the pain was unbearable. A few hours later, I started to bleed.”
Practitioners of FMG often believe that it is supported by religion. The religious leaders themselves take varying positions on the issue with some promoting it and others supporting its elimination.
FMG is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. Out of 28 countries in Africa where it is practiced, 19 have national laws prohibiting female genital mutilation. Despite this, prosecutions are extremely rare as customary laws governing traditional practices are used to override such treaties.
Elimination of this practice through legislation and enforcement alone is impossible unless it is supported with efforts to change firmly entrenched social attitudes. Community based mobilization, as child rights organization Plan International has used in its efforts in Africa, are pivotal for lasting change. The organization works in several African countries where genital mutilation is most prevalent and uses engagement with communities, religious leaders and children themselves in addition to working with the governments to end the practice.
“Through community awareness and education 44 villages in areas where we work have declared themselves FGM-free,” says Madina who herself has undergone a transformation from being someone who was subjected to infibulation in her childhood to leading plan’s project to eliminate FMG in her country, Mali.
“Besides parents and elders, engaging with children and young people, is key part of our approach. Girls and boys are not only rights holders themselves but also future parents who will play a crucial role in ending this generational scourge,” she says.
Campaigners like Madina have a tough job on their hands. FMG continues to be practiced, tolerated and endorsed as a private familial matter sanctioned by customs and traditions on too vast a scale. The fight to end it needs to make the political center stage and enter mainstream public discourse. Until such time, 100 million girls and women in Africa will continue to believe and be told that their genitals have been cut and mutilated to make them “clean” and “beautiful.”
Davinder Kumar, an award-winning development journalist, is Plan International’s Head of Communications for West Africa. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar. (A version of this opinion first appeared on Al Jazeera.)