Ending FGM: Why these 3 traditional cutters are putting down their knives
In the west African nation of Guinea, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)*Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. is a ‘normal’ and widespread practice – 97% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been cut. Despite being a violation of girls’ rights and prohibited by international law, FGM continues to be practised in many countries because gender inequality and discriminatory social, cultural and religious norms uphold the idea that FGM preserves chastity, cleanliness, and family honour. FGM is also linked to social norms regarding beauty and femininity. These beliefs are rooted in a perceived need to control female sexuality. Today, an estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone some form of female genital mutilation or cutting – the procedure can cause death, severe bleeding, infections and infertility, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn and maternal deaths. In addition, prolonged pain and trauma to often very young girls can leave psychological scars.
Since 2007, Plan International has worked alongside 19 communities in Guinea to help end the practice and dispel the myth that FGM is a necessity for women and girls. With the support of grandparents, mothers, fathers and religious leaders, we’re spreading awareness about the dangers of the practice. A central part of these efforts is focused on engaging traditional cutters to put down their knives and advocate for change. Meet 3 of these traditional cutters and see why they chose to retire their knives.
The knife is a main character in Jacqueline’s family story – her grandmother was the local cutter, followed by her aunt who appointed Jacqueline as her successor. To be recognized as the official community cutter, Jacqueline had to cut her own daughter – an act she would later come to regret. “The girls were prepared for this long-standing ordeal,” says Jacqueline, describing how girls in her community were warned of their “initiation” into womanhood.
“They were told that they were going to the forest to jump from trees and learn the secrets of being a woman. Whatever happens, they should not cry. And accept everything, like their mother and grandmother, before them.”
“To be a cutter was [a] special function in this community. Everyone respected me and feared me.” When Plan International began working with the community to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM, Jacqueline admits she was skeptical and thought it was a conspiracy to put her out of work. “They explained to us that the practice is illegal and has terrible consequences,” says Jacqueline. “At first I did not believe it and I continued to secretly cut girls.” But everything changed when Jacqueline’s daughter gave birth to her first child.
“The delivery was a real ordeal. The doctor asked her ‘who mutilated you like this?’ My daughter suffered and finally had to give birth by Caesarian section… After that she was very angry at me, called me a bad woman and abandoned me.”
That’s when Jacqueline decided to retire her knife and go see Plan International who eventually helped her transition and become an advocate for change. Now, she trains youth and works with them to dispel the myths and expose the dangers of FGM. “I am happy to have abandoned the practice. I was really in the dark. To be released is already a victory.”
For 45 years, Nantenin was the female genital cutter and the traditional birth attendant in her community. “I saw all the girls here and I cut them all,” she says. “Once adults, they came to my home to give birth.” Nantenin says that when Plan International began having community discussions about FGM in 2007, nobody wanted to participate or listen. “The complications they talked about, I knew of them but no one thought they were connected to cutting,” she says, adding that it took time but eventually the community perspective shifted and less people were asking to have their daughters cut.
“They realized that what Plan was saying was true,” she says. “Me too. So I stopped… It was very hard for me, who helped deliver all these girls and women, to understand that I had done them so much harm by cutting them.”
With Plan International’s help, Nantenin was able to continue working with the community she has served for many years. Now, she’s part of a child protection committee that spreads awareness about the dangers of FGM. During a ceremony in which Nantenin’s entire village formally recognized the complete abandonment of FGM, Nantenin exhibited the knife she had been using for decades and threw it into the village latrine – a powerful moment, signifying the end of an era.
Unlike many other traditional cutters, Madame Jeanne never cut girls in the forest and she didn’t use an old knife either. “I am a nurse by training. So, I could bring home the surgical equipment required and cut girls with anaesthetic using sterilized apparatus. It reassured many parents,” she says, adding that her mother was also a cutter.
“It’s an ancestral and family tradition and the people here have plenty of reasons for doing it. But in general, parents mostly cut their daughters to make them virtuous, so they don’t run after boys.”
“The awareness raising started in 2007 here, and given my medical training, I immediately understood that what we were told was true. But people were not happy and when I started to refuse to cut girls, the neighbours would complain. But I stayed firm.” Today, Madame Jeanne is an activist working with Plan International to end FGM, and she now participates in alternative initiation ceremonies that don’t include FGM but still celebrate a girl’s transition into womanhood. In addition, she facilitates discussions between girls who have been cut and those who have not to help break down barriers and stereotypes.
Working together to end FGM
Plan International works with parents, community leaders, government authorities, children and young people to raise awareness, help transform behaviour and put an end to harmful traditional practices that violate girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.
A key element to our approach is to create space for young people, and especially girls, to raise their voices and engage their communities to defend and uphold their rights. In Guinea, we partnered with the Association for Support of the Rights of the Child, a youth-led movement that works to empower children to claim their rights to a safer, more fulfilling life.
"We meet young fellows at school, discuss the issues of children rights and act whenever it is needed", says Tamba Leon, president of the club.
"FGM is an integral part of our activities. Even within the young generation, many boys and girls still defend the practice and discriminate against uncut girls. We work with them to break the misconceptions about FGM." "Today, no one can say that they are not aware of the consequences of FGM. We have to be the generation that puts an end to this practice."
Time is running out for girls at risk of FGM
In the time it took to read this story, 45 girls were forced to undergo FGM - that's 1 girl every 8 seconds. With each passing moment, progress that has been made to ensure girls are protected from FGM is being undone. We are now faced with the reality that more girls will undergo FGM as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis. We must stop the clock and stop the setback so that girls can live a life free from FGM.
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