FGM – Female Genital Mutilation – consists in altering or injuring women’s genitalia for non-medical reasons, and can cause lifelong mental and physical suffering. This has been going on for centuries for traditional reasons or misconceptions of religious obligations. In West Africa, FGM used to affect most women before adulthood, causing both physical and psychological trauma.
The UNFPA efforts to end FGM under the Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation and funded by the European Union aims at ending FGM through a multi-layer approach. It works closely with governments to develop a legal framework which bans FGM. It also works hand in hand with the community, raising awareness about the health, psychological and social consequences of this mutilation, which used to affect more than 95% of women in some countries. Finally, it also works with the community and religious leaders, as well as with the cutters to have them drop the knife or the blade.
This documentation, which took place in 2022, highlights the noticeable changes regarding the perception of FGM in some communities in Mauritania, the Republic of Guinea and Burkina Faso.
This project was made possible with the support of the UNFPA.
In Mauritania, 69 % of women and girls, aged 15-49, have undergone some form of FGM. However, FGM is also a social phenomena, as it affects 84% of the poorest section of the population, mostly in the south-eastern part of the country.
Tahge Mint Mahmoud practiced circumcision for almost thirty years, and she came from a line of circumcisers, and it was her mother who taught her. According to her, throughout her career, she never had a problem related to excision, because she was the best in the region. In 2013, she also participated in the awareness program. Thus, the program brought together, among others, the village chief and the imam who explained to her the misdeeds of excision.
Before, there were two of them who practiced circumcision in the village, but the other circumciser is now dead. When she stopped, her mother did not understand, but she explained to her. Her daughter own daughter had two daughters whom have not been circumcised.
Aissata Ndongo Aissata is 40 years old and a mother of 8 children. She studied in the region, before going to Senegal, where she obtained two diplomas, midwife and nurse. She has been working in the health sector since 1991. She got in touch with the UNFPA in 2019.
In this part of Mauritania, excision is practiced from 6 months to two years. According ot her, before 2010, it was systematic like vaccination. The difficulty is that some people still have got it into their heads that it is a practice linked to Islam.
Zeynabou Minti Mohamad Mboyrick (born in 1969) and her daughter Morum Mohamad Diagraf (born in 2015). In 2017, when Morum was only 2 years old, Zeynabou agreed to have her daughter Morum circumcised. Zeynabou had already been sensitized and was against this excision, but she succumbed to pressure from those around her. She was told that if she did not circumcise her, she would be impure. Her husband was opposed, but told her that if she wanted to circumcise her, he would agree and leave it to God.
Following this excision, Morum had a heavy haemorrhage, and she was brought to the village health center, where Aissata sutured her. Aissata was able to save Morum, but Morum has been stunted ever since. Following this, her husband wanted to file a complaint against the circumciser, but following pressure from those around him, he abstained. The exciser has since stopped, and Morum is scared whenever she and her friends meet the exciser.
According to Aissata, it is easier to sensitize women because she has direct contact with them. They are also sensitive to health arguments, since Aissata explains the problems posed by FGM, such as difficult deliveries, the risk of infection and haemorrhage.
She has seen a decrease in girls' deaths from FGM-related infections and bleeding. However, For people who continue FGM, there is a fear of bringing their children to health posts when there is bleeding or infection, for fear of being denounced, now that excision is prohibited.
One of the specificity of Mauritania’s approach to ending FGM is the legal aspect. On January 12, 2010, around thirty ulemas gathered in Nouakchott to unanimously adopt the fatwa, or religious decree, recognizing the prohibition of the practice of excision in Islam.
The Republic of Guinea knew one of the highest rate of FGM in the world, reaching 97%. Before, FGM used to be practiced openly, during ceremonies with big celebrations, music and chant. The article 258 of the penal code criminalise the practice of MGF.
Sylla Camara is the deputy director of the OPROGEM, a law enforcement unit which is specialized in intervening on FGM among other. According to him, excision is a socio-cultural phenomenon, and therefore to fight against it, there is awareness and repression. They receive one or two denunciations per month, mainly during the long holidays, Before, it was a public practice, carried out by close relatives or grandmothers. However, the fact that excision is now practiced in a restricted circle makes denunciation complicated.
Kadiatou Konate, 21, is the director of the Young Girls Club Leaders of Guinea. This club brings together girls / adolescents / women, aged between 10 to 25 and was created in 2016. The club is present in 8 regions and works on issues of FGM, forced marriage, sexual violence, etc. According to her, the situation is changing positively, but for lack of regular studies, it is difficult to have updated figures concerning the situation of female circumcision. According to her, the fact that people go into hiding to practice cutting is a demonstration of the change in attitude towards cutting.
Djibril Camara is 45 years old and has 9 children. He is a farmer and is also the imam of the village of Bangouyah, in the Kindia district. He studied the Koran for 7 years, and became an imam like his father before him. Before, in the village, excision was practiced a lot: it was a celebration, during which people danced and sang. People supported female circumcision because it was part of the tradition and no one saw it as wrong.
Now people have changed their minds, and it is mainly the health argument that has changed their minds. In 2021, an imam/teacher went to study in Morocco and thus found that female circumcision is not recommended by the Koran. Since, Djibril talks about the problem related to excision at the mosque, and according to him, the word of the imams carries with the community, because they are listened to and respected. Now people hide if they want to practice.
Aissata - 14 - and Isma - 15 - are against excision. In this region, excision is practiced between 10 to 14 years old. Aissata, with the white tee-shirt, talked about it with her parents, so that she would not have herself circumcised. Together, they decided that she would not be circumcised. She was supporting by other adolescent girls, including Isma (with the red tee-shirt) members of Young Girls Club Leaders of Guinea.
Mama Sayon Camara - 52 - is a former cutter. She learned to circumcise from her aunt, who was a circumciser. She promised herself that she would start cutting her own daughter. She began her career as a circumciser by excising a group of 23 girls, because at the time excision was practiced in groups in the village of Bangouyah. In 14 years, she circumcised 92 girls. She was paid between 30,000 and 50,000 Guinean francs per excision (3 to 5 Euro).
Before, there was another cutter in the village, who also stopped. It's been 10 years since she drope her knife, after being made aware of the dangers of excision. During the sensitization, she also learned that female circumcision had nothing to do with religion, and that it was only related to culture and ancestors. She also raises awareness in communities about the harms of excision, but also about other issues, such as early marriage. As a community relay, her word has even more reach, because everyone knows that she is a former circumciser. Now, she fully concentrate on her farming activity and grows vegetables (peppers, eggplant) and rice on here four hectares plots.
M'mah - 19 - wants to become a doctor, and Bountouraby - 16 works as a tailor in the village of Samaya, in the district of Kindia. Both are trying to make the mindset changing toward the end of excision. According to M'mah, dads are generally against excision, however, they are not involved in the decision-making. It is more difficult to convince the mothers, because they want to perpetuate the custom.
Ousmane Sylla is the main umam of the village of Samaya, in the district of Kindia. In 2021, he brought together all the believers in the village to raise awareness about excision. He says that it is the sunnah, it is not an obligation to practice it, therefore there is no religious obligation to practice excision.
The mindset is changing, and the criminalisation of the practice, has conducted to a modification of the practice, happening more often in the remote areas, whereas before, it used to be done openly in town.
In Burkina Faso, 76% of women and girls, aged 15-49, have undergone some form of FGM. Stastically, women and grisl from rural are lamost twice more unlucky to go through FGM. Since the mid-90’s, Burkina Faso has developped structures to repair women who got complications due to FGM.
She was circumcised when she was little, in the village. At puberty, she found that she had a problem. The ADIBF association, a partner of local UNFPA, raised awareness in his village, and Bibata benefited from a screening program in a school. The operation took place in Kaya, the main town of the distirct. At the social action, Yusuf, one of the ADIBF workers showed her pictures of repairs, that it wouldn't hurt. He reassured her. After the second operation, and the healing, joy followed.
Bibata Sawadogo was born in 1996. Until recently, she lived in a village 14 km from Kaya. She and her family had to flee because of the violence taking place there. For a month, they have been living with her husband's brother - Mohamad - and her children - Abdoulaye, 5 years old, and Latifa - 6 months old. For her, this arrival in Kaya is difficult, because here, everything pays off; wood, water.
When she was able to have sex and she was able to get pregnant, she felt like a woman like the others. She was able to integrate into society, and it was total joy. Her first word is to tell everyone to stop excision, and to those who suffer from the after-effects, to go see the structures to find a solution.
When Yussuf, a social worker who helped Bibata, ran into Mohamad, Bibata's husband two months after the operation, the latter shook his hand for a minute with a big smile, and thanked him.
Sidpassandé Sawadogo is a former circumciser. She was born in 1980 and has nine children. In her youth, she prepared rice in the street, and she is also a traditional practitioner. She inherited this practice from her mother and grandmother who were also traditional practitioners, circumcisers and midwives. She performed her first excision on her own daughter, who is twenty now, as tradition dictates. In her career as a circumciser, she excised a lot, because people had confidence, since she is also a traditional practitioner, and that she cures ailments.
She stopped the practice of female circumcision when she saw that there are traditions that can be abandoned without harm. She was sensitive to the consequences of excision, which were explained to her during the sensitization (keloid, refusal of women to have relations with their husbands, difficult childbirth, attachment, etc.). According to her, she practiced excision in order to render service, while she was doing harm. According to her, it is also necessary to highlight the examples of girls who give birth easily, for whom sexual relations go better.
Yussuf, a social worker at the ADIBF, a local NGO. “We make them change their minds by showing images, even it can shock”. Yussuf organizes awareness sessions with different communities, such as old people, old women, women of childbearing age, young girls, etc.
Nangoma Sawadogo is the chief of the village of Bollé, in the Kaya region. Nangoma was born in 1962 and served as village chief for nine years. For him, the community has seen that this FGM a bad thing. According to him, the adhesion of the guarantors of the tradition, like him, facilitated the process of abandonment.
In the 1990s, Professor Michel Akotionga and Dr Nadine Ghilat-Paréand were the first to perform an operation to repair the sequels of female circumcision in Burkina Faso in 1994. Since then, Professor Akotionga has trained more than 600 health workers in repairing the consequences of excision (midwives, nurses, gynecologists). “In training, I teach to operate with the minimum. Even in the most remote bushes, we can do it”.
In Burkina Faso, FGM was in more 95% of the case practised by traditional cutters. Slowly, the mindset is changing, and more and more criticized this practice. According to Pr Akotionga, who was the first to repair clandestinly a woman who suffer consequences of excision, "Excision will disappear, it's a matter of time."