Female genital excision is a cultural practice carried out across much of Africa to prepare a young woman or girl for marriage. The World Health Organization says excision is damaging to a woman’s physical and mental health and discourages it. Many African governments have made the practice illegal, yet enforcement is often lax. Several African women’s groups conduct educational campaigns about the dangers of female genital excision, also known as circumcision or female genital mutilation. But they often encounter resistance from their communities and their families, who say they want to protect a cultural tradition instead of adopting Western standards.
Isatou Diallo* liked being part of what she called “the movement.” It was a group of women who went door to door in their community in the West African country of Guinea to warn of the dangers of female genital excision.
Isatou said she was left emotionally and physically scarred after undergoing excision as a teenager. In addition, she said, many young women and girls died in her community from hemorrhage and infection as a result of the practice.
Isatou’s teenage daughter, Kadijha*, was a good student and wanted to be like her mother and pursue a career. Isatou worked in a lab, although her education was cut short by forced early marriage.
Kadijha said she came home from school one day and overheard a conversation among her aunts and made the unpleasant discovery that she, too, was about to be forced to give up school and become a bride. “In Guinea, when you get married, the husband goes to work and the wife needs to stay home, take care of the kids and cook,” she said, “and I’m not with that, you know, because my mom, she already went to school. And I was trying to be like her, because in the family, she’s the only wife who went to school, and I see the way she treats her kids and the way the other women treat their kids – it’s not the same. It’s totally different.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund says stunted education and forced early marriage have long-lasting consequences for women. UNICEF says such girls often fail to develop a strong sense of self, are more likely to be sexually abused, have higher rates of maternal mortality and are more vulnerable if they are widowed or abandoned.
Isatou’s husband, Mamadou Bah*, left school after 10 years to mine diamonds and initially did well. But he had fallen on hard times, as had many people in Guinea, as the economy deteriorated under an authoritarian government that human rights groups say is plagued by corruption and mismanagement.
Isatou said her husband had already accepted a dowry from Kadijha’s suitor, a wealthy man in his 60s who had three wives. Isatou said she knew nothing of the marriage plans until Kadijha told her. She then confronted her husband about the marriage and the prospect of genital excision.
But Mr. Bah said his decision was made, and both Isatou and Kadijha say they felt the weight of it through beatings. “Where we’re from in Africa, the women can’t be in the right,” said Mr. Bah. “They can’t be in the right at all. When I say that my daughter doesn’t go to school and my wife says, ‘No, she has to go to school,’ I beat her. My uncle and my aunts, we beat the girl and were telling her never to leave for her whole life. We beat them savagely.”
Isatou said the family accused her of adopting Western ideals and of acting superior. “It wasn’t that,” she said. “It was just I didn’t want my children to go through the same thing that I did, and that’s why I preferred to protect them in my way.”
But, Kadijha said the family did not give up on the marriage plan easily, especially her aunts. “They said they already took the dowry, they already fixed the dates and everything,” said Kadijha. “I was like, no I’m not with that cause my mom does not agree. And I need to go to college. And then my other sisters but with different moms, they say we stop by middle school and didn’t even get into high school, so why you trying to go to college or whatever. We all the same so you got to get married right now. I was like no, and by the time I say no, there is one sister of my dad she come in there and she smack me on my face.”
She said her aunts whipped her with a wire and broke a bottle over her head. Blood streamed down her face. Her mother rushed her to the hospital in a taxi. Isatou said she then sought police protection. “I said that my husband said he’ll kill me if I don’t agree to give my daughter over to marry,” said Isatou. “They said, ‘relax, it’s a family problem. Go and fix it between the two of you. It’s not a matter for the police.’”
Authorities in many African countries are reluctant to get involved in domestic disputes, and there is little legal recourse available to those who report abuse. Although many African governments have made female genital excision illegal, the practice is rarely punished. In addition, a woman’s testimony often is not given weight equal to a man’s.
Kadijha said after the fight, her father, sisters, aunts and stepmothers refused to speak to her and denied her food. But, she said, her mother made sure she was fed and cared for.
In the meantime, Isatou was coming to a life-altering conclusion. One that left the future of her three daughters and her three sons hanging in the balance….
(This is part two of a four-part series that examines African gender issues. In the next segment, Cindy Shiner reports on the action that Isatou Diallo takes to protect her daughters from what she says was gender-based persecution.)
* At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.