LONDON – Belief in witchcraft is hampering efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Guinea, where almost all girls are cut, campaigners said on Tuesday.
Aminata Bah, who underwent FGM at the age of 5, said many people in the West African country believe traditional circumcisers have supernatural powers, and girls fear being cursed if they speak about what had happened to them.
With 97 percent of women cut, Guinea is estimated to have the second-highest prevalence of FGM globally, after Somalia.
Although most people are Muslim, belief in witchcraft is widespread, Bah said at an event hosted by the National FGM Center.
In some communities, she said, the flesh removed from girls during the ritual is used for spells or in traditional medicines to cure illnesses and infertility.
An anti-FGM charity in Nigeria, where a quarter of women have been cut, recently tweeted that some circumcisers sell clitorises to “fetish priests” who turn them into aphrodisiacs.
Bah said FGM is surrounded by myths and girls are often told that something bad, like infertility, will happen to them if they speak about it.
If a girl dies during FGM it is frequently linked to witchcraft, she added.
“It’s about putting fear into girls’ minds so they accept whatever happens to them,” Bah said. “It’s hampering efforts (to end FGM). It’s definitely stopping people talking about it because they don’t want to get cursed.”
She said witchcraft beliefs exist in Muslim and Christian communities in other West African countries affected by FGM, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Mali and Gambia.
Worldwide, an estimated 200 million girls have been cut, according to U.N. data, but beliefs around the practice vary. The ritual — often done in the name of culture or religion and believed to make girls pure — usually entails the partial or total removal of external genitalia. The vaginal opening may also be sewn up.
Mama Sylla, who runs a charity in Britain called La Fraternite Guineenne to campaign against FGM, told how she nearly died after being cut at the age of 9. “It was extremely painful. I bled for three days. I was lucky to survive. They said a witch had put a curse on me,” she said, adding that FGM is a factor in Guinea’s high maternal mortality rate. “Many women die giving birth. People will say it’s because the baby was too big, but it’s because the mother cannot push because she’s been cut.”
The question of whether FGM can have links to witchcraft arose during a landmark trial last year when a mother of two became the first person in Britain to be convicted of FGM.
The Ugandan-born woman tried to halt police investigations with spells involving curses inserted in cows’ tongues and bitter fruit, but an expert on FGM said the practice was not connected to witchcraft.