A knife is passed on from mothers to daughters with one purpose: to mutilate. The tool continues a cultural tradition that gives power and prestige to women who use it. But it also is one of the world’s most despicable acts of gender violence: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
TEXT: Ana Ortega Pérez
“Patriarchy has imposed the mutilation as a rite to instill in women how to be a woman. Because you, as a woman, are educated in what the patriarchy wants, you adhere to those false myths about the ways of being a woman. Being a woman is a synonym of procreation, housework, subjugation, acceptance without questioning, living in silence and being a slave of your own life. Patriarchy teaches only what it is convenient for itself.” This forceful statement from Guinean activist Fatima Djarra, resident in Spain, depicts the reality in which millions of girls and women live all around the world. Despite being a worldwide problem, FGM, also known as ablation, does not receive the attention it should.
The transnational migratory movement and the increase in the number of people forced to escape from their countries have spread FGM outside the traditional centers of practice. Now, this harmful practice is performed in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, places where few know about this tradition. More than 18,000 girls whose families migrated from other countries but are now living in Spain are at risk of suffering ablation. In Spain, as in most of the so-called Third World countries, mutilation has been illegal since 2003.
Territorial distribution of female population with FGM country origin, 2016
The alarming rise of this violence against the sexual and reproductive rights of women has resulted in establishment of International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6th. However, few truly understand what FGM is and what it means for girls and women who have suffered it or wait their turn with fear.
More than 18,000 girls are at risk of suffering ablation in Spain
FGM is a manifestation of the violence and inequality of gender based on the alteration or lesion of female genital organs intentionally and with no medical reason. However, the ignorance, lack of information and cultural and linguistic barriers prevent victims from getting proper medical attention. Also, lack of knowledge and indifference from medical professionals to fight FGM have added to the problem.
One medical professional who is knowledgeable about this is Carmen Solano, professor of Nursing at the University of Alicante. Solano also belongs to the research group Nursing and Culture of Care, which is led by Professor José Siles, a specialist in traditional harmful practices against women. The group launched a project based on the stories of women who settled in Alicante and have suffered mutilation. “We consider that changing attitudes regarding FGM needs the awareness and the involvement of those women who have suffered from it. When we talk to women, we see that women living in Spain are not aware of the complications that mutilation has generated for them,” Siles said.
Nurse Cadidjato Baldé is a researcher for the project. When she was 11, the future of this girl from a tiny village in Guinea was already decided. She was destined to marry the imam of her village. It was one of the many child marriages girls face daily. The United Nations reports that more than 47,000 girls are forced to get married every day. “Your family gives you in matrimony and when you have your first menstruation, around 15 years old, you are married. But your husband has been assigned a long time ago.” It also happened to Balde’s older sister when she was 17. She was forced to marry a man older than her father. She tried to escape to no avail.
Balde’s dream of being a nurse came when she was a child, since she was old enough to help her father with his duties as a doctor. Their parents always promised her and her sisters that they would not be forced to get married — they would marry only when they wanted and after they were done with their studies. This promise was not supported by the facts since thousands of girls abandon school to get married or to work. However, Baldé found help when she met a Spanish aid worker in her village and he brought her to Spain. Since then, the little girl became a nurse who specializes in researching the harmful practice of FGM — and bringing public attention to it.
A rite of initiation
There is no age limit for a girl to be mutilated. When they are born, the future of millions of girls across the world is determined. The age of those who suffer mutilation is young for two reasons — so the trauma of being cut is lessened and to prevent them from escaping. Fundación (Foundation) Kirira and its president Esther Giménez are dedicated to protecting girls in Spain and Kenya. Eighty-five schools around Kenya are targeted to provide workshops, anti-ablation clubs, distribution of school equipment and scholarships to educate and eliminate this harmful practice.
Mutilation occurs all during the year, however the summer months are the most dangerous, so Kirira also carries out rescue trips to prevent ablations.
In Baldé’s familiar surroundings in Guinea, mutilation is seen as something normal. “A girl who has not been mutilated feels out of place in her social group. She will feel attacked because others think that she is dirty and not even a woman. Precisely for this reason, girls ask for mutilation because of the simple reason of belonging to a group, to a culture and being a normal woman”, Balde’ said.
Mutilation is disguised as a feast by the community. Fatima Djarra talks about her experience of being mutilated when she was 4: “We were dancing, singing and eating the night of my mutilation. Next morning, we went to the presidency of the Republic to give a salute to the President, so you can see that mutilation is a very rooted tradition in the society. The President also gave us cows to celebrate that girls were mutilated, not because they study.” In her book, entitled Untameable, Djarra paints herself as a rebel, always fighting to draw attention to this harmful practice: “They teach us that we are nobody. With my book, I want to give voice to those women who are afraid to talk about their mutilation, to give them the confidence to live without fear and to talk and face their experiences.”
This gender violence is justified by using false benefits and myths as pretexts. Among them, the achievement of chastity and the preservation of their virginity. To those communities that practice ablation, the clitoris is considered a tool of the demon, something that can turn into a penis. Women, whose clitoris is not cut, are stigmatized as bitches and they only look for men for their own pleasure. Even witchcraft or not finding a husband are part of the variety of myths associated with FGM. The nexus: blame the woman.
Cadidjato Baldé: “A girl who has not been mutilated feels out of place in her social group. She will feel attacked because others think that she is dirty. Girls ask for mutilation because of the simple reason of belonging to a group and being a normal woman”
Gloria Peter, co-founder and director of Asociación Mujeres entre Mundos (Association of Women Between Worlds) is clear about mutilation: “I don´t consider mutilation as a rite of passage from youth to adulthood. To me, mutilation is the beginning of violence against women and girls. African women want to celebrate the transition of girls into women but without harming them. Without knifes or traumas or illnesses.”
Peter, a human rights activist, came to Seville from Nigeria for her education. When she arrived, she worked as a translator to help other associations with immigrants. “In the case of women, I saw that they suffer so much inequality, sexual abuses, maltreatment or prostitution since they leave their country. We decided to create our own association because we detected that women felt more comfortable telling us their stories because we also were women, mostly immigrants like them,” she said. Mujeres entre Mundos is the first association in its field working against mutilation, prostitution and sex trafficking. “When the debate about legalizing prostitution comes out in the open, I always ask if they know what is going on with women in Africa. Luxury prostitution is by no means the same as prostitution of the poor.”
Her determination to help women living in Andalucía and in her native Nigeria made it possible for Mujeres entre Mundos to work with the Andalucian government to create a guide so professionals can learn to detect and prevent FGM. This tool is the first one to recognize mutilation as gender violence. The number of mutilation cases in Andalucía is not high in comparison to other places in Spain because the concentration of migration is less. However, ablation is committed by other means to avoid jail: Peter said some use burning. “There are mothers who burn the genital organs of their daughter since they are born to prevent the growth of their clitoris.”
Criminal code and protocols anti-mutilation in Spain
Criminal code in Spain classifies FGM in Article 149 as a crime of injury, considering that ablation of the clitoris “is not culture, it is mutilation and female discrimination.” The case of a five-month-old baby from Gambia who was mutilated in Aragón, Spain received so much publicity that the Instituto Aragonés de la Mujer (Aragonés Women’s Institute) implemented a protocol against FGM, the first of its kind, said Director Natalia Salvo. The case also resulted in the first prison sentence for ablation in Spain in 2011. The verdict ended with the father in prison for six years for committing this practice knowing it is illegal in Spain. The mother’s sentence was two years in prison because she did not know that ablation was illegal in Spain.
This and other anti-mutilation movements have enabled the practice of “preventative agreements.” Using them, girls are examined by a gynecologist before and after traveling outside Spain to check that they do not have any genital alteration or cut. This tool not only assures their protection against parents who approve of mutilation but to ease pressure on parents who do not want to mutilate their daughters. The agreements highlight the legal consequences the parents might suffer if their daughters are mutilated when they come back Spain.
Consequences of mutilation
In 1983, doctor Morissanda Kouyaté was working in his clinic in a rural town of Guinea when five desperate women showed up. They were carrying 12-year-old twin girls in critical condition, covered by blood. Kouyaté´s wife even donated blood to try to save them, but both died. Until them, this doctor had never seen the tragic results of mutilation. “I considered it as normal and part of the inheritance received from our ancestors,” he said. After the death of the twins, the doctor took a lead role to prevent future deaths by mutilation. He met with representatives of sixteen African countries and the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Harmful Traditional Practices was born, with Kouyate’ as its president. Thirty-five years after the fateful episode, this doctor is one of the main forces in the fight against FGM and other harmful gender violence practices.
The list of cases he has found is endless as well as the physical and psychological consequences of mutilation. Illnesses, bleeding, overwhelming pain and infections during menstruation and urinating are the daily trial of girls and women exposed to mutilation. The act of using the same unsterilized knives for all or not having medical and hygienic knowledge adds to the traumatic consequences of this practice.
The ailments associated with mutilation plague those who suffered it for their lifetimes. The psychological trauma, fear of sexual relations and the possibility of death for both mother and child during labor are added burdens. The impact of FGM is brutal, says Carmen Solano. In her project, she has detected that “at a psychological level, these women do not have the awareness of mutilation as something bad. They assume it as normal.” Estrella Giménez adds: “Many women do not know how a vagina with no cut is and they are astonished when they know that in Spain women are not mutilated. That it is forbidden by law.”
Depending on the community and the culture, the level of cut is one of four existing types. The most usual one is the partial removal of the clitoris, although the brutality can be even greater.
The cut of one of the most sensitive parts of women is a perfect way to force them and to repress their sexuality — a method to eliminate their pleasure, says Cadi Baldé. “For example, a man who is living away from his village, his wife and children for several years is not interested in having a woman with sexual desire. That is the reason that explains why men are will be always in favor of practicing mutilation.”
Understanding the culture to eliminate mutilation
The key to prevent and eliminate FGM is awareness and education. Every expert and activist agree on this. Informing parents about the dangers of mutilation, along with imposing jail sentences for those who commit this harmful practice, has caused the numbers to decrease. The workshops professionals are teaching focus on the work they do with mutilated women so that women can realize what this would do to their daughters, said Carmen Solano. In her project, women say that they do not practice the cut on their daughters because they live in Spain and they know that it is illegal. At the same time, they say that if they had the chance to return to their countries of origin, they would perform mutilation. “They explain that it is the tradition that belongs to their culture. That is why we work with these women to make them aware and to prevent them from mutilating their daughters. We believe that mothers are mainly the ones who must be aware to protect their daughters. We have not worked with men yet and, even it would be ideal, it is true that FGM is a female practice. Men are left behind. However, when you go deeper in their stories you notice that the hand of men is behind it.”
Reaching these women is not easy. First, because cultural differences are vast. Second, because women have been taught not to talk about their intimacy. Menstruation, sexual relations, gynecological problems, their feelings after mutilation, all are taboo This complicates the task of professionals to make them aware. The fundamental point is to gain their confidence and respect so that they can understand the problems mutilation causes so the women choose to eliminate this practice by themselves.
The stereotypes that immigrant woman suffer wherever they go also does not contribute to eradicating FGM. Fatima Djarra knows first-hand. Flor de África, the association she founded and heads, is dedicated to making African black women visible, to tear down prejudices about them being seen as objects. And also, to empower them to get the emotional and economic freedom they deserve. “We want to support each other in fulfilling the emotional, cultural and familiar vacuum that occurs after leaving your country”.
FGM, beyond a religious matter
Mutilation is often associated with religion — in particular to Islamic religion. Therein lies one of the main reasons why this detrimental practice is so misunderstood. Mutilation is not associated with religion, especially to just one. In fact, neither the Koran nor the hadith alludes to it on their thousands of pages. The question is: Why is Islam blamed for the removal of female genital organs when it is an issue of tradition and communities?
To answer this question, Gloria Peter gives several examples. In the North of Nigeria, her native part of the country that is mostly Muslim, ablation is not generally committed. However, it is a fact that in the south, the Christian part, it is. “This shows you that mutilation is not a religious thing.” Most of the population of Egypt is Muslim and, except for the immigrant people, practically all the women are mutilated. The same does not happen in the Muslim communities of Morocco, but it is a fact among Jewish women.
Hiding mutilation under tradition, culture, religion or social isolation to provoke fear among women is the most perverse example of gender violence. A violence, once again, based on the vulnerability of the human, sexual and reproductive rights and health of women.