In May of this year, a man from Sierra Leone contacted the BBC with suspicions that his girlfriend had died as a result of female circumcision. Fatmata Turay was 19 years old when her mother called her home to her native village. She was to be initiated into the secret Bondo society, a centuries-old tradition involving music and dance where young women prepare for adulthood. 36 hours later, Fatmata was dead.
On the day of her funeral, her boyfriend, journalist Tyson Conteh, took out his camera and started filming. He explained why he was documenting what was happening around him. “I want to provoke a debate with this film. Fatmata doesn’t want to see another girl, a woman, die. That is her wish.” Fatmata is said to have spoken to him in her dreams and wanted him to reveal the truth about her death and end the practice of female circumcision.
Conteh was given rare access to the all-female Bondo set. And rituals, during which the traditional role of wife and mother is passed on to young women from the hands of elders. Locals consider it an expected and necessary rite of passage.
However, part of the initiation process also includes female circumcision, a procedure that does not bring any health benefits, it only mutilates the woman.
What is female circumcision?
- Female circumcision refers to procedures that involve partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other damage to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.
- It is usually performed from an early age until the age of 15 years of a girl’s life.
- There are four types. One of the most severe and harmful forms involves the complete removal of the clitoris and the suturing of the labia and vagina with only a small opening for urination and menstruation. This practice has numerous immediate and long-term health consequences that affect the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls, including abnormal scarring, infections and abnormal scarring, debilitating pain, complications during childbirth, or death from post-procedure bleeding or infection.
- Female circumcision is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights. Yet, by 2030, it is estimated that approximately 68 million women and girls worldwide will be at risk of this “procedure” and its consequences.
- According to one of the latest surveys from this year in the journal Scientific Reports, more than 44,000 young women and girls die because of it every year. The survey included five countries where the practice is legal, namely Sierra Leone, Mali, Malawi, Chad and Liberia, and 13 other African states.
- Female genital mutilation is common in about 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, but is also practiced in some countries in Asia and Latin America and among communities originating from these regions.
- Female circumcision is illegal in the European Union. In some European countries, it is even a criminal offense if it is carried out outside the territory of the given state. Yet it is estimated that there are 600,000 women and girls in Europe who have been victims of female circumcision.
- Why? It is a combination of cultural and social reasons. Circumcision is based on the belief that female genital mutilation has a religious justification or is related to purity, fidelity and beauty. Circumcision predates the rise of Christianity and Islam and reflects deep-rooted gender inequalities in the societies in question.
Sierra Leone, where Fatmata came from, is one of a handful of countries where the practice is legal. However, another country is currently considering its legalization.
This is Gambia, a coastal state in West Africa, where the debate on female circumcision has been opened by proposals from political and religious leaders. Eight years after the practice was outlawed, they want to introduce legislation to decriminalize it.
The case of Gambia
The discussion was triggered by the conviction of three women for practicing female circumcision in the Central River region.
It was the first ever ruling based on a 2015 law that banned the practice. The court ordered the women to pay a fine of 15,000 Gambian dalasi (approximately five thousand crowns) or spend a year in prison. A few days later, however, an Islamic cleric paid the fine and encouraged Gambians to continue performing female circumcision, The Standard, a Gambian newspaper, wrote.
Subsequently, the proposal to repeal the law was supported by members of the country’s national assembly. And at the same time, the Supreme Islamic Council issued a fatwa condemning anyone who disagreed with the practice. The fatwa is in of Islam by a religious-legal standpoint, which justifies or sanctifies a certain action or policy from religious positions. The clergy also called on the government to reconsider the legislation, The Guardian reported.
Activists and civil society organizations argue that this is a step backwards. “The Gambia took a bold step in 2015 to eradicate female genital mutilation, so if we were to go back eight years later and start again, it would have very, very big implications for the country,” Fallou Sowe, the civil society organisation’s national coordinator, told The Guardian Network Against Gender-based Violence.
However, the voices of human rights activists do not yet have much resonance in the country – judging by the data. From the Demographic Health Survey, almost three-quarters of women between the ages of 15 and 49 underwent FGM in The Gambia in 2019 and 2020. Thus, the ban has not done much so far.
Fatou Baldeh, the founder of Women in Liberation and Leadership, a Gambian civil society organization and herself a FGM survivor, told The Guardian that she is well aware of the effects of FGM. And they try to warn women. Yet she and her team have been kicked out of three communities in the past few weeks by people who accuse them of “questioning our own cultures, norms and religions.”
“We broke the culture of silence about circumcision. We have moved back… The Islamic Supreme Council’s declaration that the practice is religious has caused enormous damage,” said Baldeh.
He fears that the government will actually repeal the law. And that other laws for the protection of women and girls can also become a target – for example, the law that prohibits marriages under the age of 18.
In addition, according to her, the decriminalization of circumcision in The Gambia could also have an effect on other countries in the region.
Mama Jubi, who circumcised girls in her community in The Gambia, stopped the practice in 2021 when she discovered it was not a religious obligation.
“I know it’s not Islam. Not all Islamic scholars recognize this as a religious practice. If anyone feels compassion for their fellow man, they must stop. It is painful… I will continue to tell others about the consequences of this practice. I gave it up and I will never tell anyone to practice it,” Jubi told The Guardian.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, where 83% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 are subjected to female genital mutilation, the African Institute for Human Rights and Development and a coalition of 26 feminist organizations recently filed two lawsuits against the government to force ministers to pass a law banning circumcision.
The removal of some parts of the external genitalia of women is still a relatively common practice, especially in the northern part of the Caucasus in Dagestan, even if Russian politicians deny it. It is a medieval custom that survives in many local Muslim communities.
Pavla Gomba, director of the Czech branch of the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF, was in Sierra Leone on several missions. According to her, circumcision there was once a procedure that was performed more symbolically, as part of initiation rites, or only in adulthood, before the girl entered marriage. Today, it is performed on younger and younger girls, so the physical damage is even greater.
“The main reason why the procedure has not yet been eradicated is that it is very lucrative for those who perform it. Parents pay for it, often with their entire monthly earnings, so they have a financial incentive to maintain it. But the main reason is social pressure. A girl who has not been circumcised is not considered an adult and cannot participate in community decision-making,” Gomba described to Nauzal.
It is not talked about
“I was circumcised at the age of five. And even 10 or even 20 years later, I wouldn’t have testified against my parents,” said Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a writer and former Dutch parliamentarian of Somali origin, for the British daily The Standard. She has been trying to speak publicly about female circumcision for years. But it is not easy to break the silence. “It’s a psychological thing. The people who do it are fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts. No little girl will send them to jail. How can you live with that feeling of guilt?’
According to Alia, circumcision will be difficult to eradicate and only condemning it will not help. According to her, it is much more important to de-taboo the practice itself and expose it.
The director of the Czech UNICEF Gomba has a very similar opinion. She personally met with women who underwent this procedure. “I was surprised that even though almost all girls and women went through this ritual, regardless of whether their families were Christians, animists or Islam, it was still a big taboo in society.”
He faces oppression from the authorities, is under constant state surveillance, but he continues to fight. Glanis Changachirere from Zimbabwe is helping women across Africa gain their own voice. Seznam described the (often violent) conditions in the region to the News.
Gomba remembers seventeen-year-old Lilian, who became one of the volunteers trying to spread awareness among the girls.
“She was circumcised when she was 14 years old. It was a harrowing experience for her: she was abducted unsuspectingly on the way to school and spent the whole week after the operation with the other girls in a hut outside the village. She nearly died from the injuries and infection. It was then that she decided to be the last in their family and to protect her two younger sisters from circumcision. Then, as a UNICEF volunteer, she visited schools where she talked about what circumcision entails and why it is dangerous,” Gomba describes.
The good news, she says, is that thanks to long-term programs, education and local volunteers, the prevalence of female circumcision is being reduced. “In the 31 countries with nationally representative prevalence data, around one in three girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have undergone the practice today, compared to one in two 30 years ago. The fastest decline occurred in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Liberia and Togo,” she calculated.
In Kenya, for example, at the beginning of November, a woman accused of aiding and abetting female genital mutilation was sentenced to three years in prison for violating local law. In addition to jail time, he faces a fine and will have his sentence extended by another three years if he fails to pay it, Kenyan radio station Capital News reported.