DAKAR, SENEGAL — The world's first hospital built to help victims of Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, is creating a controversy in Burkina Faso. The hospital was due to open Friday but the government now says it won't allow the clinic to open because of licensing issues. The American NGO behind the hospital says the government revoked permission for the clinic in response to pressure from the Catholic Church.
Burkina Faso's first lady, Chantal Compaoré, was scheduled to inaugurate the world's first hospital to reconstruct the clitoris of women who have suffered from female genital mutilation (FGM). The hospital has been under construction in Bobo-Dioulasso since 2011.
But earlier this week, the Ministry of Health said it would not allow the hospital to open its doors.
Lene Sebgo, the minister of health, gave the reason.
"The Ministry of Health can't give permission for the hospital to open on March 7 because there was never any authorization to create it. There are clear rules and regulations for opening a medical clinic, and the government cannot allow the hospital to open now because it has not followed these rules or listed its health workers," he said.
The hospital was created by Clitoraid, a Las Vegas-based non-profit organization, which works to "restore a sense of pleasure" to women who underwent FGM. It was backed by the founder of the International Raelian Movement, a UFO religious sect that promotes sexuality and sensuality.
The surgery, which rebuilds the anatomy of the clitoris, not only repairs the physical damage of FGM, but can also restore sexual sensation.
Abibata Sanon is Clitoraid's Burkina Faso representative and the head of the Association of Female Fulfillment, a local NGO that collaborated with Clitoraid on the hospital. She said she didn't understand why the government wouldn't allow the hospital to open.
"We submitted all the paperwork in 2011, but now the Minister of Health is saying there was a problem of deadline with the files and has asked us to delay the opening of the hospital," she said.
Sanon said the building was complete, the equipment was in place and volunteer surgeons were ready to work.
Clitoraid released a statement on Tuesday saying the government revoked its authorization following pressure from the Catholic Church, which they said was against the restoration of a woman's pleasure.
The Realian Movement and the Catholic Church have butted heads in the past, particularly when it comes to the issue of condoms.
The spokesperson for a national conference of Catholic bishops in Ouagadougou declined to comment.
This is not the first time clitoral repair surgery is being offered to victims of FGM. Doctors have been performing the surgery in private clinics in Burkina Faso since 2006.
Doctors usually present the surgery as a way to relieve health problems caused by FGM, such as burning during urination, painful scar tissue or complications during childbirth.
It remains, however, controversial, as many people in West Africa still view the removal of a girl's clitoris as a rite of passage. Many NGOs working to end the practice of FGM said the surgery could undermine their efforts, if people viewed it as a "quick fix."
Burkina Faso's Minister of the Promotion of Women, Nestorine Sangare, said there were other ways to help a woman find pleasure besides the surgical reconstruction of the clitoris.
She said, "Sex education courses for women can teach them how to discover their body and learn how to have a sex life that is satisfying. The presence or absence of a clitoris isn't the end of the world."
She said when she first heard about plans to open a "pleasure hospital," she was insulted, because such a campaign stigmatized women on account of their sex life.
Clitoraid said that more than 300 women have already signed up for the surgery, which will be offered free of charge.
Sanon said the volunteer surgeons would go ahead and perform the surgeries in other, private clinics over the coming weeks.