Madina Bocoum Daff – WNN Improve It
(WNN/PI) Bamako, MALI, WESTERN AFRICA: “Woman has to suffer, woman has to endure”. We grew up listening to these words of my mother almost every day. She told us often “you have to keep your mouth shut whatever be the circumstance because you are a woman.” It was this way of thinking that my sisters and I, as so many other generations of women before us, had to grow up with.
I am an ethnic Fulani woman, just over 50 years old. In my family, the majority of girls, including myself, were excised and, in most cases, by the most severe form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or excision that is infibulation. This literally involves cutting parts of the female genitalia and forcibly fusing it again to leave a tiny hole that barely allows for urination and passing of menstrual blood. We suffered and we continue to suffer both in flesh and in spirit from the consequences of this practice. We thought the pain was normal; we were not supposed to express it, to show it or to talk about it. This is what our culture taught us, and we had to accept it.
A lifetime of suffering in silence
I don’t remember how old I was when I was excised. Nor do I remember if I had some difficulties immediately after being excised. But, I do remember going through a very painful cycle of puberty. I suffered a lot each time I had my periods. It was so painful that I had to miss my school for at least one or two days every month. More than the excruciating pain, missing lessons at school used to affect me the most. I was the eldest child in my family and my parents really wanted me to do well in school I felt responsible to excel in my studies to set an example and pave the way for other girls in the family to go to school.
I cannot even explain the feeling of terror that runs through excised girls’ mind thinking of marriage. On the day of their wedding, brides undergo another painful “surgery” to reverse the infibulation. This involves cutting open the connecting tissue created by infibulation to restore the vaginal opening to allow consummation of marriage.
In most cases the intervention is done by a traditional practitioner without any anaesthesia and little care for hygiene. Sometimes it is even performed on the bathroom floor. It is only after completing this procedure an excised girl is considered “free”. She usually has her first sexual experience the very same night.
There is no word to express the shame, the fear and the pain, a bride has to face.
Overcoming traditional beliefs
When, in 2001, child rights organization Plan International in Mali gave me the opportunity to coordinate a project to fight against FGM, I knew immediately that my own family could be the first barrier; they would never accept that I contributed to this fight.
I was really not easy for me, and for six months I was not able to tell to my mother that I had joined Plan and was working against FGM. The day my mother found out she just told me: “You have to resign. It is unbecoming of a woman from a respectable family to question and discuss sensitive issues such as excision in public.”
My mother’s way of thinking just goes to show the general ignorance towards the negative health effects of FGM on women and the psychological impact it has on them, particularly girls. It was a hard job convincing her and receiving her support. I had to remind her of the incidents within our family where girls had developed serious complications as a result of excision. Convincing my mother gave me more strength and confidence to commit myself fully to the fight against this harmful practice.
Infibulation is the most common form of practice in Mali – is without any doubt one of the worst forms of violence against children and women, and it is a violation of their fundamental rights.
The practice is a very old tradition in Mali based on culture and not necessarily linked to religion – as is the case with many other countries in Africa. All regions in Mali practice excision, with a relatively lower rate in the North. In most cultures where it is practiced FGM is a traditional ritual to prepare girls for womanhood. It is done before they get married between the ages of 13 and 15. Increasingly, it is now being performed on very young girls who are in no position to resist. It many rural areas it is being practiced on girls under 5. In urban areas there are trends of performing FGM on newborn girls before they complete their first 40 days.
Challenges of changing attitudes
Every year thousands of girls are subjected to FGM
For example, a national health survey in Mali in 2006, showed that 85.2% of women between 15 and 45 in the country had been excised – 87.4% in rural areas and 80.9% in urban areas.
A baseline study conducted by Plan Mali, in December 2010, in its intervention areas, showed that the overall prevalence of FGM was 49.5% for girls between 0-5 and 77.5% for girls between 6 and 14.
The report also found that more than half of fathers and more than one-third of mothers in areas where the project against FGM was implemented wanted to maintain the practice. Among children and young people only 56.5% of girls and 44.25% of boys were ready to fight against the practice of excision. This is an important indicator because children as future parents need to be involved to put an end to this practice. Excision is likely to continue if actions are not taken to improve children’s involvement in the fight.
Given this data, Plan and its partners have set a big challenge for themselves – to reduce the prevalence of FGM in Mali by 10% by June 2015 among girls between 0-14 and to influence decision-makers in the country to adopt specific laws prohibiting FGM by March 2015.
Through a multidimensional approach based on a local response initiative to promote children’s rights and fight against FGM, and by building up stakeholders and communities capacity at all levels, Plan Mali and partners are breaking taboos and gradually opening up debate around FGM. This has helped girls to express themselves. It’s no longer too daunting to discuss the issue of excision in public, or in front of parents, authorities or leaders, and to share experiences. We are using “Child to Child” and “Child to Parent” approach which allows girls to raise awareness and promote their rights among themselves and with their parents using methods that are creative and do not offend people’s sensitivities. The messages are communicated using acting, drawing, poetry, songs, etc.
Concerted actions needed
As result of our sustained efforts, Plan Mali and partners have led to 44 villages publicly declaring abandoning of FGM. The strong commitment of communities, with the support of their leaders, is a way to encourage and influence decisions nationally.
Copies of statements and agreements, signed in areas where Plan is working, have been used widely by Ministers in charge of the issue of excision when advocating for a national policy against FGM.
My appeal today goes out to African governments to help children escape from this harmful and dangerous practice. The governments must:
- Respect and implement conventions and treaties signed and ratified by them regarding human rights in general and children’s rights in particular.
- Make budgets, material and human resources available to implement national policies to fight against harmful traditional and social practices affecting children, particularly FGM.
- Legislate against FGM at the national level. This will strengthen actions taken by NGOs, in different countries, in the form of information and awareness campaigns.
Only a woman like me who has undergone excision knows the trauma and life-long impact it brings on one’s mind and body. The pain and suffering I have endured and the childhood I lost cannot be reversed, but with determination and concerted action we can save hundreds of thousands of children from this inhuman practice.
Madina Bocoum Daff is the current FGM Project Manager for Plan International in Mali.
2013 WNN – Women News Network
The words and experience of Madina Bocoum Daff have been brought to you through an ongoing WNN partnership with Plan International. No part of this article release may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN, PI, or the author.