Forced early marriage and female genital excision are common across Africa. About 40 percent of African girls are married by the time they are 18, compared to less than 10 percent of African boys. Excision is meant to stem sexual desire and preserve virginity prior to marriage. Many governments have made the practice illegal, yet enforcement is often lax. Women seeking to protect their children from genital excision often encounter resistance from their communities and their families. Some give up the fight at home all together.
Isatou Diallo* had a few things in her favor: intelligence, good friends who lived out of town and an ample supply of jewelry. With these three things she sought safety for her three daughters.
She said she exhausted all efforts at reaching an understanding with her husband, Mamadou Bah*, about his plans for their teenage daughter, Kadijha*, to undergo genital excision prior to a forced marriage. Isatou said she wanted to spare Kadijha and her other two daughters from the emotional and physical pain she suffered from genital excision before her own forced marriage.
Mr. Bah had already accepted the dowry for Kadijha. To refuse the marriage would bring shame on the family. Mr. Bah said refusing excision was out of the question. “In Africa it’s a tradition. It’s what we know from our parents,” said Mr. Bah. “A girl from a certain age must be circumcised. It’s mandatory. If she is not circumcised she cannot hold her head up and her children will not be able to talk in front of other kids because her mother didn’t apply the African tradition. I must always respect African tradition.”
But Isatou said the safety of her daughters came first. The World Health Organization says many girls and young women die from complications of genital excision, such as infection and hemorrhage.
Isatou said she sold her jewelry and bought plane tickets for herself, Kadijha and her two younger daughters, fearing that some day they might face Kadijha’s predicament. She said they hid at the home of a friend out of town and then boarded a plane to take them across the Atlantic.
Two years ago, Isatou and her daughters arrived in the United States. They requested asylum. “I wanted to seek refuge in a place of law like the United States, and that is how I could protect my children and save their lives,” said Isatou.
Mr. Bah said the family had no idea where Isatou and the three girls had gone.
In the meantime, Isatou and her daughters were discovering that even a country where the rule of law is respected could sometimes feel unjust. When they arrived in busy Washington from Guinea, they did not speak English and hardly knew a soul. That is typical of many African asylum seekers. There are few resources available to them - such as government assistance with food, housing and medical care - because they are not yet legal residents. As a result, this can leave them open to exploitation.
Isatou said she and her daughters spent a frigid winter living in the basement of a fellow African’s home, and that he would not let them turn up the heat and only allowed them to cook once a week. She said he increasingly demanded more money to pay for gas, water and electricity.
Now Isatou and her three daughters live in a two-bedroom apartment that they share with a boarder. Isatou and Kadijha earn money through hair dressing, which is a common form of employment for female African immigrants. Their status as asylum seekers prevents them from having regular employment and insurance. Isatou said she often suffers abdominal pain because of genital excision but can rarely afford to go to the doctor.
She and Kadijha said adjusting to the United States has not been easy. For one thing, Isatou said, in trying to protect her three daughters, she has made life more difficult for the three sons she left behind in Guinea: 15-year-old twins and a 10-year-old.
Occasionally, she speaks to them on the telephone. “The smallest cries on the phone and says I abandoned them and that the other family members mistreat them,” said Isatou. “It’s not easy. Sometimes, they can go the whole day without eating or they won’t get enough to eat. They want me to be there.”
Kadijha said she is frustrated at being surrounded by opportunity, but lacking the means to pursue it. “Actually it’s not easy for me because I’m not working, and I’m trying to go to school,” she said. “I have no papers, no social security, no working permit or anything like that. At least if I got one of these I could work, I could go to school. But without these things I cannot do anything.”
But she can dream. On the campus of the historically black Howard University in downtown Washington, Kadijha often meets with her friends. She hopes to be a student there some day. “I say probably these people, are they going to like me or not? Are they going to like my accent?” she wonders. “Am I the only Guinean people who’s going to be in that school? I got only that kind of thinking all the time.”
Kadijha says she wants to use an education to help fight against forced marriage and female genital excision in Guinea. But she has to win asylum first – and she hopes that her upcoming hearing before a judge will yield good news.
(This is part three of a four-part series on female genital excision, forced marriage, and gender-based asylum. In the final segment, Cindy Shiner reports on the Diallo family’s asylum hearing.)
* At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.