Village leaders from a wide area of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau gathered this week to denounce the traditional practice of female genital mutilation. Public-health advocates have been working for years to educate communities about the health dangers of the custom, which persists in many African Islamic societies. Some West African villagers who practiced female circumcision in the past have now turned against the custom, and they are sharing their message with surrounding communities. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.
Leaders from more than 100 villages along the Senegalese-Guinea Bissau border came together on Sunday to publicly reject the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.
These border villages join hundreds of other communities in West Africa that have abandoned the custom of removing parts of young girls' genital organs, as a form of female circumcision. Some people consider this a religious requirement, to keep girls chaste, but religious leaders say FGM has no part in Islam.
When Binta Diallo, 33, first heard about the dangers of female circumcision in her village of Kolda, near Senegal's southern border with Guinea Bissau, she was shocked. "It was a shock to me when I heard them describe the dangers," she said. "No one had ever said anything bad about it."
Health educators from the group live and teach in rural communities where FGM is commonly practiced. "The word gets out and people realize this is a human rights violation, that there are problems in childbirth, [and] later problems women have that they do not even realize were a direct consequence of this practice," said Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, an American nonprofit health and human rights group. "Once they learn about germ transmission, they get the fact that this practice led to the death of many of their daughters."
Senegal passed a law seven years ago prohibiting female genital mutilation, and government officials in Dakar have tried stringent enforcement measures, but the practice is still widespread in rural parts of the country.
Female genital mutilation is normally performed by traditional practitioners using crude scissors, knives or even razor blades -- often without anesthetics. The girls who are subjected to this run the risk of many long-term medical complications, such as damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, sexual dysfunction, urinary tract infection and infertility. Some of these conditions have proven fatal during childbirth.
The Senegalese woman, Diallo, was 25 years old when she first heard about the dangers of FGM. She had undergone the procedure when she was nine years old, and had already cut the genitalia of her oldest daughter, at the time four years old.
"After I heard about the risks, I decided not to do that to my second daughter. We have made the decision never to go back to FGM, Allah willing," she said.
For Melching there is more than health at stake. "It is not just a question of health, but everyone has the human right to have their whole body," she said.
Tostan has worked with almost 2,000 communities that have issued public declarations to discourage the practice of female circumcision. Melching says villages set up committees to monitor and report people who still continue to practice this form of mutilation against girls.
Although there is a growing movement to reject FGM, there is still lingering resistance from traditionalists. After the national Senegalese news service (APS) published a report about Sunday's mass meeting in Médina Poussang, and the anti-FGM stand the community leaders endorsed, readers submitted their comments online.
"There was a reaction from Africans living in Europe and the United States, and they were criticizing the fact that people were giving up a cultural practice," said Diallo. "But then the African women were responding and saying that you do not understand the harm and the suffering that has come about because of this practice."
"It is too easy to say that this a cultural practice that we have to maintain. The world is evolving and Africa is not a museum," she added.
According to the U.N. children's organization UNICEF, 130 million young girls and women worldwide have been victims of female genital mutilation, and FGM continues to be legal in almost 30 African countries and Islamic societies around the world.