When Senegalese activist Marietou Diarra began to tell the story of the two daughters she lost to genital mutilation, it didn't matter that almost no one else in the room spoke Wolof. You could have heard a pin drop.
Diarra was part of a panel on female genital cutting at The Daily Beast's Women In The World summit yesterday—a panel that featured Somaliland activist Edna Adan Ismail and Senegalese activist Molly Melching (seen translating for Diarra in the video) discussing not just the horrors of female genital cutting - a descriptor used by the panelists themselves - but how to educate people to reject the tradition without rejecting their religion or cultural heritage.
Of course, the horror played a part, as you can see from Diarra's story.
Ismail talked about the morning she was cut, despite (and over) her father's strenuous objections.
When it is about to be done to you, no one seeks your consent... When the day comes, you are caught, you are cut, you are tied. It was something so shocking, so painful, that I still feel it.
Ismail was 8 when she was cut; she is now 72.
Over 150 million women have had their genitals cut and 2 million girls are subjected to the practice every year. The term "female genital cutting" refers to everything from patterned scarring of the external genitals, to the removal of part or all of the clitoris, to the removal of the clitoris, clitoral hood and inner labia, and which may or may not involve having the vaginal opening all but sewn together. It can be fatal to the girls on which it is performed and almost always leads to an inability to take pleasure from sex, if it doesn't make sex downright painful. It's been linked to increased maternal mortality; increased incidence of fistula; and increased infant mortality. Although many people who practice female genital cutting believe it is required by their religion, there is nothing in the Koran, Bible or Torah that requires women's genitals to be cut — something noted by panelist Maria Otero, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, as well as Ismail, a practicing Muslim — and, often groups that partner with Islamic scholars have been successful in reducing its incidence in their countries, as a Bahraini participant noted in her comments after the panel concluded.
In many cultures, there is unwillingness to talk about the practice. While Diarra was onstage and discussing her experience, panelists referred to the practice as "the tradition" (or used the Wolof word for it), as to describe it as "female genital cutting" is considered inappropriate. Even in Senegal, where Ismail became the country's first nurse practitioner and first licensed midwife — let alone founded her own hospital for reproductive health — she found it difficult to discuss with anyone what had been done to her. But she couldn't forget.
One day, without thinking, without planning, it erupts, like a volcano. And once that lava erupts, you cannot put it back... [People began talking about it] too late for me, but future generations will be saved
It took Ismail until 1976 to talk about the practice — but the panelists all agreed that talking about the practice is a first necessary step in eliminating it.
One difficulty in eliminating the practice comes from the women themselves: they think that not participating will reduce their marriage prospects (and it can) and mothers, in particular, think of it as a rite of passage of which they can be proud. Ismail described the method that is often used in Somaliland, which involves the removal of the labia, clitoris and clitoral hood and sewing up the vaginal opening to within the width of a matchstick (which, naturally, creates complications for childbirth, among other problems). Nonetheless, a source of pride for many mothers is the tightness of the vaginal openings of their daughters. Not all mothers fear or wish to keep their daughters from undergoing the practice, as was Diarra's experience: Ismail told the story of an 11-year-old with Down Syndrome who underwent a botched cutting that "sliced her to the bone." After she had been bleeding for 12 hours, they took her to Ismail's hospital where her mother told doctors she'd done it out of love. The child didn't survive.
Melching's organization, Tostan, wasn't founded to eliminate female genital cutting in Senegal, but to educate the Senegalese about rights and health. They have found that, though peer education and discussions about rights, they can encourage communities to make social changes of their own volition. One of their biggest successes is in reducing female genital cutting: of 5,000 villages in Senegal, 4,229 have agreed to end the practice, and they've convinced nearly 300 communities in Guinea and 20 in Burkina Faso to do the same. Melching said:
It's about empowering people through educations to come to these decisions by themselves,
All agreed that trying to come in as outsiders to put an end to the practice is the least effective method for stopping it.
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