MILLIONS LEFT SCARRED BY FEMALE MUTILATION
Putting a stop to excision in Burkina Faso
Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1998
Two years ago the government of Burkina Faso made a firm commitment to stop the practice of excision. After many years of campaigning, this has ceased to be a taboo subject and attitudes are starting to change - if slowly. Sixty-six per cent of women are still circumcised, compared with 70 per cent 20 years ago. But nowadays families have their daughters operated on in secret and at an earlier age – and accidents are put down to "witchcraft". But it will take time to eradicate a custom that links the community to its ancestors and is closely bound up with sexual identity.
By our special correspondent JOELLE STOLZ
Market day in Sissamba, a large village in the north-eastern province of Yatenga in Burkina Faso. By midday the heat is overpowering, but in the shade of a tree twelve men have gathered to listen to representatives from the provincial anti-excision committee. The only woman present is Fatoumata, the village's qualified midwife, but with the men there, she will not dare take part in the discussion.
Most of them are village elders, leaders of Sissamba's eight districts and influential in the community. The oldest is usually a local chief. They know that female excision is a political issue for the government - since 1996 it has been a criminal offence. One of the men raises his hand and asks, "Can the committee explain the effects of excision again, so we can be sure we've understood them properly?"
Sore Nantene, a welfare worker, explains at length the disastrous effects of the custom, widespread in Africa, of removing a girl's clitoris and often the labia minora (1) to "make her a complete woman" and eliminate any resemblance to the male. She talks of the risk of haemorrhaging, sometimes so violent that the woman carrying out the operation cannot stem it with the traditional haemostatics. She talks of the trauma caused by the pain in a part of the body that is full of nerves and blood vessels, the risks of infection and tetanus when the wound is sealed with cow-dung, the scars that make childbirth difficult and prevent normal urination. The men applaud politely and seem to approve, because that is what the government wants, but it is hard to tell what they really think. They know how to fall in with the government's all too obvious demands and the wishes of the donor agencies, which see the anti-excision campaign as a positive sign of development.
One of the community leaders speaks of the force of tradition and the power of the taboos they were brought up with: "If you don't obey them, you'll die". They do not stop believing in them, even when people are determined to prove them wrong. One of the elders says they are still afraid. Death is so frequent in these rural communities, how are they to know it is not a punishment? Because the corollary of "You'll die if you break the rules" is, of course, "You've got some hope of living if you follow them".
If a person follows the rules but still dies prematurely, there is an easy – and unanswerable - explanation. They were the victim of sorcerers, malevolent beings who hide in the community and have the mysterious power to "eat souls". The belief in witchcraft is deeply entrenched in African society and is at the root of the custom of excision.
In any case, who says excision can kill you? The government officials say so. People listen to them, but without much conviction. When the Sissamba elders are asked if they know of any girls dying after excision, they shake their heads. Death certificates, in theory compulsory, are rarely made out. "People understand the importance of a birth, because it allows them to get government benefits", says one official, "but death ..." There are no records of how many girls have died.
Miriam Lamizana, the energetic president of the National Anti-Excision Committee (CNLPE), says, "We have managed to break the taboo and raise national awareness". She still remembers the reaction in 1992 when a plastic model of the female genitals was shown on the eight o'clock news to demonstrate the harm done by excision. The press talked about shock treatment and the minister concerned suggested Mrs Lamizama should change her strategy. "I replied that there's not much point showing teeth if you're talking about excision."
The reaction to "La Duperie" (The Deception) was even more violent. The documentary, which the committee screened for eighty chiefs in southern Nigeria in 1996, shows an excision being performed on a girl, with all the crying and screaming. "Before seeing the film, the chiefs grumbled that it was for women - it wasn't anything to do with them. Then as soon as the first pictures of the excision were shown, they fled, they couldn't take it. Afterwards, they said that they hadn't realised that was what excision was like. One even said that women must be sorcerers to do something like that. The result was they signed an undertaking to stop the practice."
This deliberately shocking film caused a furore when a short extract was shown on TV two years ago. Jacob Ouedraogo, the high commissioner for Yatenga province, recalls: "An enormous number of people phoned me demanding that I stop the broadcast straight away. The following day they told me they would smash up the television equipment if we dared show it again." After this shock treatment, "things did change, but it can still be an emotive issue. When you see these horrible things happening, you think of your own child. But then you come up against the traditional belief that, to be a proper woman, you've got to have had an excision."
Mr Ouedraogo is making sure that the girls in his own family do not undergo the operation and believes that this will set an example. "I always tell people that if there's any punishment by the ancestors, I've taken the responsibility, and the assurance carries weight because I come from the same culture as they do".
The 168 talks, 35 seminars (28 in 1997 alone), 30 conferences and the radio and TV broadcasts in the CNLPE's campaign were targeted at opinion-makers, as well as senior police officers, midwives and the women who actually do the excisions. Burkina Faso is one of five African countries (3) to have passed a law against excision and one of the few actually committed to the campaign. Since 1994, the committee, under the auspices of the ministry for social welfare and the family, has been generously funded, mainly by the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and UN bodies such as Unicef (4).
The intensive campaign sometimes causes resentment. Mr Amadou, a politician in the ruling party, questions whether it is really necessary to focus so much attention on excision. His daughter and nieces, like many of the girls in the urban elites, have not been subjected to excision. "What we mainly need to do is improve education in the rural areas and then the practice will start to die out by itself."
It is education that is the real problem. According to official figures, only 35% of boys go to school and barely 10% of girls. These percentages are very low for a country with a population of 10 million that is mainly agricultural but has a good university. They go some way towards explaining why excision is still popular. Dr Michel Akotionga of the CNLPE says that even intellectuals face social pressure. There is a strong desire for continuity and excision is often seen as a way of counteracting female education and protecting against the sexual freedom that is in danger of undermining the family.
In fact, even in primary school, girls are sometimes seduced and even sexually abused by their teachers. Apart from that, government schools have failed to come up to expectations. Mr Ouedraogo explains: "Families complain that after the children have been to school, they're unable to find jobs, they think working on the land is beneath them and live off their parents. That's why in this strongly Islamised province there's been a big increase in medersas, Islamic schools funded by the parents which teach religious studies, arithmetic and natural sciences."
The medersa teachers, often trained in Saudi or Kuwaiti institutes, are in favour of education for women and opposed to "superstitions" dating back to pre-Islamic times. Excision is unknown in the Gulf states, except for Oman. There is no mention of it in the Koran, except for one controversial saying (hadith) attributed to the Prophet, recommending that girls should be mutilated as little as possible. Most Muslim theologians have refused to give the practice religious sanction in recent years (5). The majority reject it, with the notable exception of a few Egyptian Islamists who set themselves up as defenders of the medical profession's right to make a living from excision.
It was also a living for 44-year old Mariam Nebie, whose mother and grandmother both practised excision. Until recently, she did it in the courtyard of her little house in the Tiendpalogho district of Ouagadougou, receiving 1,000 CFA ($1.60) for each operation and presents in kind. Since a short prison sentence in 1995, she has confined herself to circumcising boys.
The CNLPE has given Antoine Sanon the job of making the police force and army more aware of the problem. He says that fear of the police does have a deterrent effect. In 1997 several female circumcisers and their accomplices were taken to court and sentenced to up to five months in prison and a 50,000 CFA fine (6). He emphasises that there is no "anti-excision squad" but the police are ready to intervene when a case is reported. Last year the SOS-excision unit received around 20 calls. "Before that, it was unthinkable in Africa to inform on your neighbours."
One effect of the campaign has been that parents have excisions done earlier and earlier, often before they are a year old. Isabelle Gillette, a sociologist and member of GAMS (Groupe de femmes pour l'abolition des mutilations sexuelles) who has written a thesis on polygamy and excision amongst African immigrants in France (7), says that it used to be a form of initiation rite and girls went into retreat away from the village. "They learned to cope with the pain of childbirth and all life's sufferings. But by the 1960s, girls were starting to become more educated and they began running away or rebelling.
Nowadays, mothers say that if girls go through it when they are babies, they'll soon forget the pain". Yet the risk of an accident is higher with a baby and the experience is even more traumatic and incomprehensible for a child for whom it does not yet represent a form of initiation.
But loving parents continue to take their children to the circumciser clandestinely, terrified of being reported. Mrs Nebie says that this is because some of them believe that if a girl has not had an excision, "she will like men too much". In a polygamous society where women provide the agricultural labour as long as the husband is punctilious in performing his conjugal duties, this wish to control female sexuality is certainly convenient for the men. But it also allays the fear that obsesses women: that their husbands will sleep around, neglect their families and abandon their children, especially in the big cities where the rules are different and values confused. Frigidity is the individual price that has to be paid to "keep women quiet". The virtuous Burkina wives complain about all the Togolese and Ghanaian women who have not undergone excision and steal their men because, as Mrs Lamizana puts it, "they have a different attitude to sex".
There is another reason for excision which is just as important to women. They are afraid of the clitoris "killing the child" if it touches the baby's head during childbirth. Mrs Nebie says that a little while ago, a 30-year old woman who had had four stillborn children came to see her and begged for an excision. She was convinced her clitoris was killing the babies. But attitudes are changing. Sergeant Sanon was called to a village where a woman had an excision when she was four or five months pregnant: neighbours had been afraid the operation might kill the child. On the other hand, a nurse in Ouagadougou who could not conceive, even after modern infertility treatment, had an excision as a last resort when she was over 30. She became pregnant. "It'll be very hard to convince her that it's just a coincidence", sighs Dr Akotionga.
A coincidence, or proof that in most human societies there is a "symbolic marking" of the human body that exercises a subconscious influence and denotes membership of a community. It is not easy to give this up, even in the interests of greater freedom? The Sissamba elders admit that some customs that had the force of law, such as facial scarification, have died out. If those things can change, so can excision. But it will take longer, because excision touches on the last frontier, a fragile sexual identity in a changing world where women are becoming more assertive and men sometimes feel threatened. The best students in Ouagadougou have refused to continue their studies for fear of putting off potential husbands.
Excision is not just the survival of an outmoded belief. It is a drastic and illusory response to the conflicts of the modern world, such as how we control our children's sexuality and what the relationship should be between men and women and between the individual and the community. The people of Yatenga do not live in a vacuum. Many of them have travelled in their own country and to other countries in West Africa. They are aware of different customs and are ready to make comparisons between marriage, dowry and relationship systems.
On the other hand, they live in a world where nature is more powerful than the dictates of the government. They wait anxiously for the rains to start and wonder how they can escape famine when the harvest is poor, as it has been this winter. Nothing is more important to them than maintaining continuity by bringing children into the world and keeping them alive.
(1) There are several forms of circumcision. Infibulation, practised mainly in the Horn of Africa, also involves removing the labia majora and "sewing up" the vulva almost completely with thorns.
(2) Documentary by the Interafrican Committee against Sexual Mutilation.
(3) Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt and Burkina, soon to be joined by Senegal and Ivory Coast.
(4) The Netherlands and Denmark, the main donors, have released the equivalent of approximately $370,000 and $263,000.
(5) The geographical distribution of excision does not coincide with the areas of Islamic influence. In northern Nigeria, for instance, the Muslim Hausas do not circumcise their daughters whereas the practice is very widespread in the Christian south.
(6) Under the Burkina Faso penal code the sentence is between six months' and three years' imprisonment, five to ten years if the girl dies as a result.
(7) GAMS, 66, rue des Grands-Champs, 75020 Paris, tel: (33)1-43-48-10-87.
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