A new film focuses on the fight by African activists against an ancient practice that is still performed each year on millions of girls: female circumcision, often known as FGM, or female genital mutilation. Opponents call it a human rights abuse that destroys a woman's ability to enjoy sex, is sometimes fatal, and frequently leads to lifelong pain and disability.
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“I was forcefully cut when I was 14 years,” says Kenyan anti-FGM activist Agnes Pareyio. “I tried to resist; everybody was calling me a coward. There was a lot of peer pressure on me that forced me to prove to them that I was not a coward. But I hated it. So, I grew up hating it and made sure that not my daughter, not anybody who can listen to me, will undergo FGM.”
The village-by-village effort of education and persuasion that Pareyio and others like her in Somalia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Mali have taken on is the subject of "Africa Rising: The Grassroots Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation," made by Paula Heredia for Equality Now, a group that works to promote human rights for women.
The film opens with 14-year-old Mary Solio remembering the day she was cut. "My father decided to marry me off. I told him no, because I wanted to continue with my education,“ Solio says. “They beat me. They removed all my clothes and they beat me nakedly. I ran, but they got me on the way. I cry, but nobody was there in the forest. I cried but I don't have anybody to turn to. They beat me the same day and they took me to the husband's home."
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At least 100 million African women and girls have undergone FGM, which involves the removal of all or part of the female genitalia. Sometimes the remaining flesh is stitched closed, a practice called infibulation, leaving only a tiny opening for urination and menstruation, and making intercourse and childbirth painful and hazardous. FGM can cause immediate hemorrhaging and death or a lifetime of pain, disability and severe emotional problems, doctors say.
Activists fight FGM by pointing out it is not practiced in most Islamic countries, and is not mentioned in the Koran. In Somalia, where most girls are cut by the age of eight, the film shows anti-FGM activist Hawa Aden Mohamed visiting a classroom. She tells the schoolgirls that God created female organs for a purpose, and so removing them cannot be right. "People are just trying to change His creation," she says. The grassroots campaigns also involve reaching out to circumcisers, who are usually illiterate village women, to teach them that FGM is wrong, and to help them find other ways to earn money.
In 2000, two sisters in Kenya, Edna and Beatrice Kandie, were told by their father that they would soon be circumcised. They sought help from human rights lawyer Ken Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, who successfully sued to stop the procedure from taking place.
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“At the beginning my father was very hostile, because we took him to court,” Beatrice Kandie shyly tells the filmmakers. “It was the first time. We made history in Kenya by taking our father to court to stop us from being circumcised."
Although Kenya subsequently outlawed FGM for girls under 18, the practice is still routine there. Girls now sometimes run away from home to avoid it. Agnes Pareyio, a member of the Maasai tribe, founded a safe house for girls, where she teaches girls about other cultural traditions to prepare themselves for womanhood.And she takes the anti-FGM campaign from village to village, explaining the law to parents and to circumcisers alike.
“We tell them, ‘Are you aware that you are breaking the law, and can easily go to jail for that?” she said in an interview. “And at times we tell them, ‘Are you aware that you expose your naked hands to people? You don’t know whether they have the HIV virus, and it can easily be transmitted to you.’”
Pareyio was in New York recently to publicize the film. She described how she was considered crazy when she began speaking out against FGM seven years ago. Her husband left her after others said she was trying to spoil their culture, and she raised her four children alone.
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“In the beginning, it was tough,” Pareyio said. “My life was in danger, because I was trying to break the silence about a culture that was deeply rooted among the people. People believed in it and had never looked at it or even known the dangers, or wanted to talk about it. So, it was like I was crazy, because I was talking about the private part of a woman, which was a taboo in Africa. Nobody can even mention the part that I used to mention when teaching them. But I insisted, because I knew having seen some communities who don’t perform it, I knew that this was just another way of oppressing our women.”
Now the subject is no longer taboo. “I’m happy now because at least everybody is talking about it openly, compared to those days,” she says. “These days I go to the field, and say ‘Well, I’ve called you here because I want to talk about FGM.’ So, we are moving towards stopping it.” Pareyio also invokes her Maasai culture in explaining why she does not let herself become discouraged by the decades of struggle that she sees ahead. “When you go to war, always be faithful [that you will succeed],” she says. “I have faith in me that one day women in the Maasai community will be free from the cut."