PATA, Senegal — As Senegal edges closer to becoming the first African country to fully abandon female genital mutilation/cutting, younger women are supporting campaigns to change social norms surrounding the practice.
In Pata, a village in the Kolda region of southeastern Senegal near the Gambian border, a celebration in November drew a huge crowd to formally announce the decision of 69 communities in Kolda to stop cutting.
The ceremony was organized by Tostan with support from the UNFPA/UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Tostan is a non-governmental organization that pioneered the human rights-based approach to community development that is one of the key strategies of the joint programme.
Teenage mothers at the celebration, many of whom have been cut, expressed their determination that their own young daughters would not have to endure the tradition, which can entail incredible suffering not only during the cutting process – done usually between the ages of two and five in Senegal -- but also during childbirth and later, taking its toll both emotionally and physically.
Mothers take a stand
“I know I would not want my daughter to be circumcised [FGM/C is sometimes referred to as female circumcision], if I had one,” said Khardiata, a young mother of an infant boy, at the event in Pata’s public square. Khardiata admitted that going against the wishes of the elder in her village in Gambia, where FGM/C is still widely practised, would be difficult. But she thinks her village should follow the example of Pata. She believes that greater understanding of the dangers of the practice at all levels, especially among older generations, will bear fruit and that more communities will eventually disavow the traditional practice.
Mariama, a 17-year-old born in Pata, agrees wholeheartedly. She is the mother of a two-year-old girl, and swore she would ‘never accept’ that her daughter, Penda, would suffer as she did. “I had great difficulty at the time to have my first sex but also giving birth to my child,” she said.
Working from the grass roots
Up to 5,300 villages have reported ending FGM/C in Senegal, according to Tostan, whose advocacy work has gone beyond Senegal to the greater West African region, resulting in thousands of communities abandoning the practice. Tostan's holistic approach involves working in villages to promote literacy and foster projects on hygiene, child welfare, human rights and democracy, the environment and economic development. An emphasis on the rights of women and children often leads into community discussions of FGM/C.
Changing marriageability standards
Tostan’s work in the village of Malicounda Bambara in the Thiès region of Senegal led to the first declaration to end cutting in the country in 1997. The women decided to stop the practice to protect the human rights and health of their daughters, and they went so far to announce their collective decision—a breakthrough for Senegal, where cutting was always considered mandatory for girls to marry. But neighbouring villages were not on board, so a local imam traveled by foot long distances to persuade people that cutting was not in their best interests.
Tostan’s method of gradually changing attitudes and behaviour through human-rights platform became the model of change in Senegal, which is committed to abandoning cutting by 2015 with the help of the UNFPA/UNICEF joint programme.
A new map to track where FGM/C is still being practiced in Senegal is revealing stubborn pockets, however, notably in the Kolda region, despite the declaration in Pata. There is also concern about border regions along Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, where the tradition still dominates and could spur recurrences in Senegal, given that the areas share ethnic groups and family networks.
But the mothers in Pata feel confident that the next generation of girls will never suffer through cutting. As their statement in the November ceremony declared, “We have been circumcised and have excised our daughters, but our granddaughters . . . will never know the pain of circumcision.”
-- Aminata Toure Sagna