Rejecting the cut
Ouraye Sall holds up a razor blade and begins to describe, with the detachment of a surgeon, how she once used the tools of her former trade. She breaks the razor clean in half, then snips off the sharp corners.
There’s no irony in her voice when she describes the great care she went to to avoid inflicting too much pain with the lethal instrument.
“I normally cut off the sides so I would not hurt the girls. This half could cut three girls,” she says.
She still carries razor blades wherever she goes, tucked away under her boubou—a long, loose-fitting African garment—in a moon bag, but now her blade has become her campaign tool.
“I was just doing it automatically. When I learnt about human rights and the problems I was causing, that was when I suddenly started realising this was something we didn’t have to do,” said Ouraye. “I started feeling such pity for all the girls that I had cut. I regretted so deeply the fact that I had been doing this to so many girls and may have been the cause of so many problems. That was then I started on my campaign to get others to stop this practice.”
Ouraye, a former excisor, or cutter, is part of a quiet social revolution against the practice of female genital mutilation, or cutting, that has been unfolding in Senegal.
At colourful declaration ceremonies, such as the one held in Sedo Abass, in Matam district, last Sunday, men, women and girls from 70 villages in Matam lined up to call for an end to female genital mutilation. Dressed in their brightest boubous—lilacs and oranges, limes and shocking pinks—made up and bedecked with jewellery, the women floated elegantly around the village square saying it was like freedom day.
Outside the mosque in Sedo Abass, the men, heads wrapped in scarves, also spoke of liberty. “This liberty doesn’t mean that we are confronting each other. What it means is the women asked for something and they didn’t get it, and now they’ve got it and it means freedom for them,” said Samba Demba Sall, the village headman.
A new report, released by the United Nations children’s fund, Unicef, in Cairo on November 24, estimates that three million girls and women in Africa and the Middle East—far more women than previously thought—are subjected to cutting every year. The report suggests the practice can be abandoned in a single generation.
Ouraye Sell is convinced that it can be done and says she’s living proof that cutting will soon be something of the past. Five years ago, Ouraye went through a programme on human rights and women’s health, and she immediately refused to allow her granddaughters to be cut. She now campaigns against female genital mutilation with the zeal of a convert.
A programme, run by a Unicef-supported NGO called Tostan—meaning “break out of the egg” or “breakthrough” in Wolof—lets villagers decide for themselves to abandon the practice. They then make a public declaration to stick to it.
Genital mutilation is often lethal for a woman’s health. It involves cutting off all or part of the outer female sexual organs and, although the practice pre-dates Islam, it is viewed as a religious requirement to keep girls pure. It can lead to severe complications such as prolonged bleeding, urinary tract infections, ulceration, sexual dysfunction or infertility. It can even prove fatal for girls who contract tetanus from rusty blades or knives, or during child birth. It is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and 12, but young babies are also often cut.
In practising societies, cutting is a pre-requisite for marriage. It indicates a girl’s or woman’s status, chastity, health, beauty and family honour. This deeply entrenched social and cultural tradition is so powerful that even when families are aware of the harm it can bring, they are willing to have their daughters cut.
The Tostan approach and the outlawing of the practice by the Senegalese government in 1999 have led to a dramatic turnaround in the practice. In the past few years there has been a reduction of a third, but cutting is still practised by about 25% of communities in Senegal. Tostan’s success has prompted Unicef to use it as a model.
New data released by Unicef this week reveals that, out of an estimated three million girls and women who are cut each year on the African continent, nearly half are from Egypt and Ethiopia—and it is becoming a global problem. With increased population movements and migration, female genital mutilation is an issue in immigrant communities throughout the world. It is estimated that 100million to 140million girls and women in the world have undergone some form of cutting.
Prevalence varies significantly from one country to another, from 5% in Niger to 99% in Guinea. Prevalence in northeast Africa (Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan) ranges from 80% to 97% and in East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) it ranges from 18% to 32%.
Within Senegal, though, there is still some resistance. Dieynaba Sarr came to the declaration with her two-month-old baby girl, hoping she could help spread the word of the courage of other communities to end cutting.
Sarr didn’t tell a soul she was going to the Matam ceremony and was terrified that her three-year-old daughter, who was in the care of her grandmother, would be cut while she was away. “I feel so weak about this. There is nothing I can do for my older daughter. She is in the hands of her grandmother,” she said.
Looking down and rocking baby Miriam on her lap, Sarr said with an air of quiet determination, “For this baby, no, no way. I know that nobody will cut her. But the other one is being brought up by her grandmother, so I can’t say for sure.”
There is a way to go still to end the practice, but Senegal is being seen as the beginning of the end to a harmful heritage.
Sarah Crowe is Unicef’s media officer for sub-Saharan Africa