Female genital mutilation abated but not forgotten, every survivor remembers the Knife

By Sarjo Camara-Singateh

Female Genital Mutilation survivors are still in trauma of the knife, as the Gambia joins the international community to commemorate zero tolerance to end FGM. This reporter sounded the minds of activists and survivors to share their thoughts with our readers.  This age long tradition has been present in our communities irrespective of their religious beliefs. Each year the United Nations has designated February 6 as the day to remind ourselves to have zero tolerance to end female genital mutilation. Foroyaa has interviewed personalities who have spoken against female genital mutilation.

Mrs. Amie Sillah-Sarr; Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh

Mrs. Amie Sillah-Sarr, Women rights activist, politician, journalist has been contributing in the fight against female genital mutilation, by giving testimonies and accounts of incidents of this old aged traditional practice. She was asked to share her experience with our readers. “I am a survivor, it happened to us. My mother and my step mother did not come from a practicing ethnic group but hence women were disempowered they could not complain, they only drew the conclusion that it’s our father’s tradition and we have to be part of that.” Our mothers schemed for us all the girls to go through the practice. When I was going, I was alone, taken to my father’s village. I can remember that they used to treat me with herbs.

“I could have recalled that one fat women sat on my chest to pin me down for them to do the operation on me, still the pain of knife could not be forgotten. I was told that I was going to my father’s village to attend a party they bought all sorts of candies for me, and I was very happy that I was going to meet my father’s family. On the whole my mother spoke with them that if I arrive they can performed the operation on me.

Now with the help of the activists through networking and giving scientific proofs about female genital mutilation, the country has outlawed the practice which is positive but we should not stop there, we need more sensitisation to create awareness so that women will not fall victim. I have protected my adopted daughter, because I don’t want her to fall victim of this aged old tradition, and I will continue the protection, even my grandchildren will never experience the tradition. The passage of rite can continue without cutting girls, because it has nothing to do with religion. The cutting is not good. We have seen that cutters have drop their knives which is a positive move.

When I told her that there is rumour that the present government would uplift the ban on female genital mutilation and asked her whether she would support that move, he response was: “I don’t think that would happened, that is a retrogression, I don’t think that will be, that could be a mere rumour, but if that holds we should stand up protest, put up our banners and speak up.”

 

 

Mrs. Mary Small, Acting Executive Director, GAMCOTRAP; Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh

She said the international day of zero tolerance to end female genital mutilation is a designated event observed by United Nation and as such all organisations are observing the day specifically meant to sensitise the whole world, especially, politicians, policy makers and those who have a say. Mrs. Small noted that still sensitisation and education should be at the centre stage in the FGM advocacy so that people would not fall victim of the law.

She further said: “We have been hearing that if there is a change of government the FGM ban is not valid, which I think is not true. The law was enacted by the National Assembly and it was not done by a single party, these members of the assembly represent their different constituencies. We are aiming for a zero tolerance of the practice. At the end of the day no girl child is subject to female genital mutilation. The total eradication should come from the people should take up the responsibility that no girls’ human right is violated. It also means that even the slightly form of preaching should not take place even in the hiding.

“Medical workers should not be involved in any kind of female genital mutilation per World Health Organisation (WHO) the law is there but it did not say zero tolerance or total eradication “If you are cut you will never forget the impact of blade”. I remembered a woman who was cut during her childhood, after growing up she was told that her cutting was not clean they had to take her to do the second bid. Imagine what kind of trauma that woman would be going through. “If you talk to anybody who went through FGM the first thing they will tell you is the severity of the pain,” that is the physiological trauma that lives on the life of that those women.

Ms. Lisa Camara Coordinator GGMC-Gambia; Courtesy Lisa Camara

Lisa Camara, the Guardian Global Media Campaign coordinator to end FGM, who has been working with the youth, the media and circumcisers to end this age old tradition, said this day has been dedicated to the intolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She further said one of the beliefs in support for this day acknowledges that culture is in “constant flux”, and with the concerns begetting FGM being so high-risk, the abolition of such practices must be prompt. This is a movement for the rights of women and their bodies, as well as the protection of their physical health, which can tremendously affect them later in life,” she said. She added that the day is an effort to make the world aware of FGM and to promote its eradication.

She stated that about 120 to 140 million women have been subjected to FGM over the years and currently at least 3 million girls are at risk each year, in accordance with data presented by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Mr. Baai Jabang a feminist and communication officer; Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh

Mr. Baai Jabang, a feminist and communications officer said the campaign to end female genital mutilation should continue until they meet the zero level. “When we talk about Zero tolerance we are hoping to reach a point where no girl child would be subjected to female genital mutilation,” he pointed out.

 

Ms. Fatou Bojang, Anti-FGM Campaigner; Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh

As one survivor Fatou claims,
“I recall the negative impact of the blade on my clitoris down to my labia minora (the two-outer fold of the vulva). I heard nothing but the blade peeling off my skin, with blood oozing like a pipe that can no longer control water.
“Whilst I heard dancing and clapping just to cover my cry like a hungry baby, with all those courage I was in a deep pain which no one can estimate for me. No matter how old you are if you recall the day of circumcision you will never forget the pain involved,” says Fatou.
She went on:
“Women are brainwashed to be submissive to patriarchy in the Circumcision Chamber; I was taught how to communicate with my eyes to elders, using proverbs in my ethno-linguistic group, Mandinka, but I wonder how babies can benefit from such training; we can be put through the passage rite without cutting.”
The healing process is also a problem, there is no anesthesia; using unhealthy substances such as tomato paste, cow dung, tooth paste is just unacceptable; now a law forbidding the practice exists, where women can fall back upon; FGM also contributes to conflict in marriages. It is also not advisable for women to use stimulants for sexual satisfaction,” Fatou posited.

Photo: Aja Babung Sidibeh Courtesy of UNFPA

Mrs. Aja Babung Sidibeh, a “Nyangsimba” but not a cutter

82 year old Aja Babung Sidibeh, who hails from Janjangbureh, noted that she inherited the tradition from her parents who are the custodians of the “Kankurang” Masquerade and the Circumcision chamber. She noted that she was active in mobilising groups of young girls that are subjected to female genital mutilation in her home town Janjangbureh. With the support of GAMCOTRAP she was trained and gained knowledge in the complications arising from female genital mutilation and her experience while assisting women during child birth.
Aja Babung Sidibeh noted that all the Circumcisers/Cutters in the Central River Region adopted her as their surrogate mother, with that she encourages all the circumcisers/cutters to drop their knives and protect the girls from this aged old tradition.
She said during the days when female genital mutilation was rampant all the circumcised girls used to be under her watchful eyes at the chamber and since she inherited the practice from her parents she was the only one who can give instruction to cut girls and agree on when the initiation ceremony should take place.

Mr. Njundu Drammeh, CPA, Coordinator; courtesy Njundu Drammeh
Mr. Njundu Drammeh said:
The legal prohibition of FGM was a great step to protecting girls from all forms of violence and abuse and the protection of their rights to bodily integrity, health and development. It signaled the commitment of The Gambia to its international obligations under international legal instruments such as the UN Convention on the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the Rights of the Child, the Maputo Protocol and CEDAW. As a child rights coalition, we happily welcomed the amendment to the Women’s Act 2010 which prohibits FGM.” 
He noted that the legal prohibition of FGM does not mean they should rest on their laurels or oars.
“The mere existence of a law does not mean FGM will easily go away or that all children (girls) will now be protected from FGM. We should popularize the legal prohibition so that everyone, every parent, every Circumciser, every gate keeper of our customs, every adult in every nook and corner of the country knows about the existence of the anti-FGM law. The capacity of the law enforcers, charged to enforce the prohibition, should be enhanced so that they can effectively investigate the violations of the prohibition. Young people, the future parents, should take the lead in the fight against FGM, thus supporting them and their organisations to lead the fight against FGM is important. Circumcisers, to be discouraged from cutting children, should be supported with alternative means of livelihood.”
He said the involvement of religious leaders in the crusade is imperative. The whole society must be encouraged to report incidents of FGM to the appropriate authorities and to be assured of protection from reprisal if they report. 
Mr. Njundu Drammeh posited that while protection of children from all forms of abuse and violence should be everyone’s responsibility, the main obligation to inform and educate the masses lie with the State, the Women’s Bureau, Department of Social Welfare, Ministries of Justice, Health and Education.
“The media, young people’s organisations, religious leaders and Faith Based Organisations, and other CBOs and NGOs with mission to protect children must also get involved in the awareness raising campaigns.  What hampers the health and development of our children must be the concern of all of us”.

Aja Fatou Jaiteh, a traditionalist, Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh

She said the following:

“Female Genital mutilation was a tradition that we embraced and appreciated as part of our rich tradition. At first if a woman or a girl child did not pass through the hands of a cutter /circumciser you are not seen a clean woman. During our time girls spent months at the circumcision chamber for a rite of passage, you will be put under a lot of difficult trainings or passing.
“If those looking after you see you as being disrespectful you’ll be dealt with severely, but not today we saw instances where babies are going through the blade without knowing anything. Now where is the rite of passage and training? I believe we must respect the words of the health experts and stop the practice. I have decided not to cut any of my grandchildren again. The law is already in place, I’m calling on all who used to do it to stop the practice.”