Female Genital Mutilation, a health risk

By Sarjo Camara-Singateh

“I was forced to enter the room. Worried, I shouted for help,” recapitulated a survivor in glowing detail of the harrowing moments she struggled to free herself from the grips of her captors.

Musoluba  -not her real name since she begged for anonymity – reminiscent of how she was pursued like a ‘criminal’ before being blind folded to be subjected to the crude surgical procedure of being cut, was ten years at the time this was happening to her. She said she was taken to the corrugated backyard of her grandmother’s house, which was used as a makeshift circumcision chamber.

Alarmed with fear during the tense moments of her desperation to evade her pursuers, Musoluba contemplated jumping into a nearby dug-out well, only to be rescued by the firm grips of the hands of the ‘Sailingo,’ a Mandinka word for assistant circumciser.

What followed next was a grueling nightmare for young child Musoluba, at the mercy of cutters.

‘I was pulled down, and felt the blade on my clitoris and suddenly I felt a sharp pain that I will never forget. The wound was covered with tomato paste and some herbs. I was asked to close my legs. The pain was excruciating but I was helpless,” she told me with her face manifesting that of a desolate figure. ‘‘There was dancing and loud clapping to muffle my wailing cries and that of other circumcised children, waiting to be taken to our waiting shed. Much agony awaited Musoluba who had to undergo a repeat of the procedure when the assistant circumciser, a frail elder woman, who inspected her the following day, to check if she wasn’t properly cut. A sequence of painful monthly menstruations followed until she had to visit a health facility, for massive keloids resulting from the scars.

‘‘I still have scars on my vulva, because of the type three circumcision or sealing. ‘Musoluba’ a high school graduate now working, continued, opened up for the first time since her graduation from the gruesome Female Genital Mutilation chamber, on such a subject matter, tabooed in Gambian society.

Sharp utensils and objects are often used to carry out this archaic procedure and initiated girls are warned of their impending death or curse that could befall them if they narrate the horrific and gruesome conditions they go through, inside the chamber.

This way, an uncountable number of survivors are forced to remain tight-lipped and their heart wrenching ordeals firmly embedded in their hearts, in adherence to the age old traditional value and custom.                                             .

It is not uncommon to hear tales of girls being hoodwinked or sometimes seized to be cut in the thick bushes in villages by circumcisers.

Arrangements of these kinds are in most cases carried out with the parent or relative’s consent. Uncut women are considered unclean by communities. So many are lured to go under the blade to be ‘cleansed’, a move viewed by many, as a major step into womanhood. An unfounded claim that Prophet Mohammed backed the mutilation, has coerced dozens, mainly from the Muslim community, into believing that FGM conforms to religious teachings.

However after going through this lethal undertaking with it’s devastating consequences, the pain inflicted on these children by traditional cutters, is indescribable. One case is the lasting nightmare it has caused on Fatou, who went through circles of agonies; from consummating her marriage with rarely healing abrasions on her vulva, to complicated delivery of her baby.

‘Tools are helpful at domestic work but when it comes to hurting/cutting, they are a bad fellow,’ begins Fatou, who, endured type three of FGM which involves cutting and sealing, on a topic she would never have dreamed of discussing publicly.

“We are initiated or warned not to speak anything, when we came across in the circumcision chamber,’ she says.

“On the first night of my wedding, I could not have sex with my husband because I was sealed. They took me to a circumciser who said she cannot open it. The circumciser had crafted my vagina by creating scars and a close up,” Fatou narrated, with her face slowly turning pale, as she continued with her explanation.

“I fainted for a while, and they poured water on me. I woke up in excruciating pain.  They took me back to my husband but he refused to sleep with me. My in-laws insisted we do it, or else I will be sealed again,” said Fatou as she started to perspire all over her body.

A bride’s first night in her husband’s abode is one to be remembered with fondness, but for a woman who was subjected to type two and three initiation, it wasn’t meant to be narrated because of the horrible experience. “When I came from my husband, my sister informed people of my return. Neighbours danced because my husband found me a virgin,” she continued.

Younger women are sealed up immediately after part of the clitoris is severed, a practice commonest in parts of Fatou’s area. The track leading to the vagina is sewn up or blocked. For sexual intercourse to take place it requires opening up the sealed track. This is done with the belief that it curbs women like her, from engaging in pre-marital sex, and for married women whose husbands have travelled, from committing adultery.

On whether putting up with the ordeal linked to sealing is worth it, she said her society must rethink this.

‘I became pregnant. I spent days at the Sukuta Health Centre and was worried what will happen to me and my baby. After days of prolonged labour, they wanted to refer me to Banjul for operation but with the help of one midwife I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I felt so much pain that I did not enjoy the celebration of my first child’s christening. My parents warned against sharing what transpired at the circumcision chamber, if not I will die or my future children will be cursed.’

Such is the trauma girls are meant to bear. A recent dossier reveals seventy five percent of women in Gambia, have had their sex organs mutilated. The WHO reported that 125 million women and girls in the world are circumcised or cut. Statistics are more mind boggling generally with a girl child mutilated every eleven minutes globally, according to the World Health Organization.

 

MUTILATION, A SOURCE OF LIVELIHOOD

Forcing or cajoling young women to get the non-medical surgery done on them has come with a massive price of death during or after the procedure, and this is soaring to unprecedented levels.

One wonders aside from the ingrained cultural or religious beliefs over the continuous survival of this age-old art, it has emerged that the practice as a means of livelihood is a major contributing factor. FGM refuses to die out on account it is a revenue-generating avenue and business for ninety percent of circumcisers.

Income, though offered by families of the initiated girls are paltry sums, circumcisers fear opting out of the trade of cutting could mean running short of money and anti-FGM campaigners face pockets of opposition from communities and Islamic scholars in dissuading them to drop the knife.

Notwithstanding this, women’s rights groups sprung up intent on effacing the menace, described best as ‘make or break’.

However amid funding support and nationwide sensitization on dangers associated with the use of the knife, cracks began to show from the body armour of an adamant society.

The group enticed their fight against the practice via incessant awareness campaigns targeting female circumcisers, empowering them to new income-making diversions to deflect their attentions from any near the knife again.

One such breakthrough is with Fulladu East district, Sandi Kunda’s Fatoumatta Baldeh.

Baldeh, a circumciser who thought it as an act of fulfillment of a religious commandment, dropped the knife having been shown pathetic graphic footages detailing full scale of damage by the practice during a session against FGM.

‘Mutilation is an act which should be abandoned due to the fact that women suffer. Sometimes I tend to imagine similar complications could happen to some of the girls whom I had cut,’ Baldeh echoed in remorse.

‘From trainings, I understand that it’s not an Islamic injunction but only a deep-rooted culture.’

Despite mounting pressure for its abolition, Jarie Demba of Busura Tumana, a circumciser holds a different view.

‘I decided to take the knife on grounds that FGM is a holy work; you do it in the name of Islam and teaching of the prophet. People come to me and tell me perform Sunnah of the prophet on my child,’ she says.

 

CAMPAIGN HEAT UP TO RID SOCIETY OF CUTTING

As crack holes opened up and gains yielded in the wake of also growing strong opposition, there was still some glimmers of hope in the face of adversity.

While some religious scholars held television talk shows, where they command a growing following, speaking for FGM as something worthy of preservation, two leading scholars Imam Baba Leigh and Modou Lamin Sanuwo came out boldly debunking assertions touting female initiation as Islamic.

According to the two scholars, pro-FGM backers are banking on Daif Hadiths –unauthenticated pronouncements heavily linked to the prophet of Islam- arguing Islam does not entertain inflicting harm on people.

The move was met with shock but so was the increased momentum to phase out mutilation.

Throwing his weight behind in the movement against the act, Dr Abubacarr Jah, a repairer of vesico vaginal fistula has been a God-sent to myriad survivors of FGM complications.

On his take about the contentious subject matter, he said: “FGM has short and long term effects on the womenfolk. One, is the lack of sexual pleasure. God created men and women in such a way that this is one of the gifts to us.”

According to the Fitsula Surgeon, who’s also proprietor of Sharab Medical Clinic, cutting can trigger tendencies resulting to loss of elasticity of the severed vagina with a huge consequence of difficult and prolong labour including a high rate of frequent tears if too deep.

“Women who suffer from the effects of FGM such as vesico vaginal fistulae are ostracised in our society because of leaking urine and faeces. These survivors are prone to infections like HIV and hepatitis.”

“This means that women are dying in silence, as a result of FGM,” Dr Jah, who, had repaired an array of affected women jilted by their husbands and discriminated against.

A long hard look at the positives enlisted in the protracted bid to combat the vice, it hasn’t all come easy for Dr Isatou Touray, who with her team spurred the fight against FGM to the extent of being tried for allegations of mismanaging own funds by their organization, in an apparent move to stifle their efforts to eradicate female mutilation.

But unruffled they marched on in a struggle numbering over twenty-years.

And weighing in a topic that earned her the ire of conservative scholars, Touray, executive director of Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), herself a survivor, couldn’t have been happier when approached.

“From research we have done, FGM is older than any monotheistic religion that exists on earth. GAMCOTRAP is fighting to end FGM in the Gambia because it is cruel and an abuse of rights in a bid to control women’s sexual desires. FGM reduces a woman to nothing but a sex object where men will be in control. It is also shrouded in secrecy and taboos which perpetuate the practice,” she narrates.

Inspired by sufferings meted out onto women, Dr. Isatou refused to hold back in her incessant ventures in a hugely patriarchal society. Of late Tostan and Safe Hand for Girls have also joined the band wagon.

‘It is believed that uncut women’s sexual desires could escalate and she may not be contained. Another belief is that a baby whose head touches the clitoris during childbirth is doomed. These myths about the female body triggered the consciousness to constructively address the population and demystify the myths surrounding FGM and other harmful traditional practices (HTPs).”

A Legislative process is on to criminalise FGM but this must go hand in hand in shattering old age beliefs.

Circumcisers who dropped the knife and vowed to protect girls in their communities against FGM; Pic Sarjo Camara Singateh