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Activists and Former Practitioners Unite to Fight Female Genital Mutilation - 2004-06-07

An international conference organized by a New York human-rights group is concluding a three-day meeting in Nairobi. Made up of women's rights activitists and former practitioners of female genital mutilation, the delegates have been working on ways to eradicate the practice.

One morning, a group of women asked 14-year-old Mariam Bagayoko and some other girls to follow them. The women took the youngsters to a dark hut, pinned them down, grabbed a knife, and cut off parts of their genitals.

Mariam's father was waiting outside the hut in her village 100 kilometers from Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. The women told the teenager her father would shoot her if she made so much as a peep. She was also forbidden from discussing her experience with anyone.

Ms. Bagayoko is now an elderly primary school teacher who eventually became a circumciser like her aunt. Sitting in a Nairobi hotel, she recounts what she calls the "indescribable pain" of that time.

She says for four weeks after the procedure, the wounds would be washed every morning with soap and water and covered with cow dung, which caused her much pain.

Ms. Bagayoko is in Nairobi attending an international conference on female genital mutilation, or F.G.M. The gathering, organized by the New York-based human-rights group Equality Now, concluded with Ms. Bagayoko, other ex-circumcisers, and activists from a dozen African countries vowing to stop the practice in their societies.

F.G.M. is a 5,000-year-old practice in which part, or all, of a girl's or woman's genitalia are removed. The physical types of F.G.M. vary, but the practice is usually a rite of passage into adulthood and a prerequisite for marriage.

Altogether, 130 million girls and women worldwide have been victims of F.G.M. They have suffered resulting infections, complications in childbirth, anxiety, and other long-term physical and psychological illnesses.

Equality Now says at least two million girls a year, or 6,000 a day, undergo F.G.M. The organization's executive director, Taina Bien-Aime, says F.G.M. has recently been recognized as a human rights violation under international law.

"Really, girls and women must be protected," she said. "They have a right to dignity, to bodily integrity, to education, etc., and F.G.M. really goes against all of those principles."

Common to many cultures is the belief that a woman is made pure by undergoing the practice, primarily by suppressing her sexual desires.

Whether F.G.M. is promoted by men or women varies from culture to culture. Commonly, girls and women who have undergone circumcision themselves are later pressured or enticed to perform the practice on others.

Traditional birth attendant Aicha Kayad, who performed F.G.M. for 20 years, until two years ago in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti, explains why.

Ms. Kayad says F.G.M. is a tradition that is passed from mother to daughter. She says she never really asked herself whether the practice was good or bad; it was just something she learned from her mother. She says she truly believed she was helping the girls by preparing them for marriage.

Ms. Kayad, other ex-circumcisers and activists say changing deeply held beliefs and behaviors is an uphill battle that requires people to learn about how the female body functions and to question and challenge their cultures.

For instance, Djiboutian activist Nima Omar Awaleh says she plans to hold an anti-F.G.M. workshop for men at which she will argue that F.G.M. has not stopped prostitution, out-of-wedlock births, or infidelity in her country.

Another strategy of ex-circumcisers and activists is to provide cultural equivalents of, or alternatives to, F.G.M.

Kenyan activist Agnes Parejio explains how her organization has managed to reduce the practice of F.G.M. amongst the Masaai ethnic group.

"It was not easy, because there were myths and beliefs that go along with female genital mutilation," she said. "We have been able to introduce the alternative rite of passage without the cut. We also train parents of the girls who go through the alternative rite, so that they do not mutilate their daughters after the ceremony."

But, conference organizers and participants point out one of the biggest challenges to ending the practice is to provide an alternative source of income for the circumcisers. In most cultures, circumcisers are well paid and well respected.

Participants at the Nairobi conference say they are trying to start up income-generating and education projects to overcome this hurdle.