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The Razor's End

Burkina Faso

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  • 'For my health I refuse excision.' This product of a strong government campaign is one of many impressive health-education psters to be found on the walls of Sabtenga's clinic.

The razor's end

Have the old women had their way?...
The Chief's revelation...
National campaigns snowball...
The hands that made the cut...


Of all the issues that perturbed me as I returned to the village this time, the one that worried me most of all was female genital mutilation - the traditional practice in some African societies of removing a girl's clitoris in preparation for womanhood and marriage. I was also well aware that this is a subject with a rare power to fascinate Western readers by its sheer horror. In a magazine built on the idea of connecting people across the cultural and economic Grand Canyon how was I to handle this most alienating of issues?

There is something of a voyeuristic, negative element to this preoccupation of 'enlightened', anti-sexist Westerners with clitoral excision. Somehow, debarred from all the other reactionary notions about African savagery, our morbid fascination and 'politically correct' moral outrage becomes all the more extreme. Some campaigners have reacted to this by launching a defence of the practice as a part of indigenous African tradition over which Westernization is riding roughshod.

Let's try to dispense with morbid fascination but also agree that excision itself is indefensible - it not only deprives women of sexual pleasure but causes them all kinds of pain and health complications. Girls regularly end up disabled and even dead as a result of the 'operation' or infections caused by it.

But my worries, as I returned to the village, were much more concrete. Mariama was the first woman in the village to stand up against the traditional practice and refused to have her daughters mutilated. Ten years ago her two daughters Memnatu and Aseta were still unharmed but I was by no means confident that they would have remained so. There have been plenty of documented cases where the older women of a village (who are generally responsible for the act) have taken matters into their own hands and used a razor on a girl. In 1993, for example, Ouagadougou teacher Isabelle Ilboudo sent her five-year-old daughter Vanessa on holiday to her family village - only for Vanessa to be sent back to the capital excised by outraged aunts.

One of the saved. Aseta;s fourth journey to the pump this afternoon ends in a shimmering curtain of water. The scar by her nose tells a tale. (See the story on Coca Maloni

Even if the old women had not intervened, I wondered if Mariama's eldest daughter Memnatu, who would now be of marriageable age, might have been forced to capitulate to the tradition in order to find a marriage partner. In some parts of Burkina Faso excision actually doesn't happen until the wedding day itself, when the bride is cut in the bush, honoured in a ceremony and then returns to her husband to consummate the marriage.

So it is with great relief that I find neither Memnatu nor her sister Aseta have been mutilated. But it isn't until I interview the traditional Chief of the village that I discover what a revolution has occurred here these past ten years. I ask the Chief about his attitude to excision fully expecting him, as official guardian of tradition in the community, to be gung-ho for it, as everyone was in 1985.

Instead he gives a remarkable answer. Up until seven years ago, he says, he thought this a good thing. But after hearing government campaigns on the radio and listening to the case made by local women like Mariama, he came round to thinking it an unhealthy practice which causes women pain and danger in childbirth. Since then he has not only stopped it happening to his own youngest daughters but has also held two public meetings to campaign against it.

I can hardly believe my ears. I naturally came to the village in hope of finding success stories that might lighten people's general gloom at the African condition. But never in my wildest dreams did I expect such a transformation as this. As Mariama and I retreat from the Chief's concession I ask her if this is really true.

'Yes, it's true,' she says. 'Excision doesn't happen here any more.'

But that's wonderful, I burble, telling her how proud of herself she should be. And so she should - as the first woman to stand against the tide she can take a great deal of credit for the change.

Of course the Chief could have been just telling me what I wanted to hear - as he certainly did on another issue (see The Boabab's Last Stand). But over my weeks in the village the revolution in attitude is confirmed. There seems to be nothing taboo about the subject: everyone agrees excision no longer happens. When I ask a lively women's meeting about the issue, for example, one woman pipes up 'If I tried to do it to my daughter now she'd have me put in prison!'

As this indicates the change has not come about entirely through grassroots pressure from below. It is also a response to national education campaigns which have their roots in Sankara's Revolution. Sankara was the first of the country's leaders to take a stand agai[image, unknown] nst genital mutilation, calling the campaign 'a just and noble struggle' which aimed to emancipate women. In 1985, just before my first visit to the country, activists called for the abolition of excision during National Women's Week. This led directly to a national seminar in 1988 and ultimately to the production of a TV documentary with the World Health Organization called Ma fille ne sera pas excisee (My daughter will not be excised). The National Anti-Excision Committee was launched formally in 1990 by President Compaore, and this runs regular awareness meetings as well as producing TV and radio broadcasts.

The unanimity with which the practice is now condemned in the village is quite staggering - I almost want to find someone who disagrees to prove I am not the victim of some huge whitewash. I find it in the person of the old Imam, Umaru Tanaguda, who doggedly sticks to his position that neither woman nor man can be a Muslim unless they have been circumcised - it is for him a question of purification. But even the most devout members of his community have now moved beyond him and accepted that there is no connection between Islamic faith and female excision - the practice was never advocated in the Qur'an. Adama, for example, the husband in our film ten years ago, is himself a marabou, a kind of lay preacher, who teaches Islamic law in his own home. Yet he too has abandoned the practice so that Rasmatu, who was born while I was here ten years ago, has escaped mutilation.

If there are still excisions going on in the village then they happen clandestinely. In the nearby town, Garango, I meet a nurse who says that he does still encounter excision - but in only about ten per cent of girls. This is still too high, of course, but it is a pretty remarkable shift from the near 100 per cent of ten years ago. And perhaps the most telling thing of all is that the excisions are now happening in secret. Ten years ago the shame and stigma was on those who still had what was seen as 'the female penis' and who were thus not real women. The reversal is extraordinary.

I am determined to meet one of the old women who used to carry out the operation to see if she has accepted the new orthodoxy. Coca Maloni, who is profiled below, performed excisions up until three years ago - a chilling thought given the state of the enfeebled, shaking hands which held the razor blade so recently. Even more terrifyingly, she says she had always believed that the clitoris was a worm that would burrow back inside the girl and do internal damage if it were not cut out. But three years ago she'd been persuaded that it was a bad and unnecessary practice - she mentions official radio campaigns as a key factor in convincing her and the other old women that they should stop. We can lament the ignorance that governed her practice of excision over all those years - but we should also appreciate the humility with which she has accepted, at the very end of her life, that she has been mistaken.

Almost everyone I talk to in the village is against excision on health grounds rather than on those of sexual pleasure - and this is undoubtedly the right tack to have won the support of traditional religious and community leaders. But the sexual benefits for all concerned will also be enormous. Sexual intercourse is often very painful for excised women not just because of scarred tissue but also because the removal of the clitoris (and often the labia minora too) means that the vagina is not lubricated by arousal. Some women do report experiencing pleasure when the scar of their clitoris is touched but in practice the experience of sex is inevitably one of endurance for women. This is by no means an advantage for the man - though excision probably originated out of the need for husbands to be sure of their wives' fidelity. Burkinabe men who experience sex with an unexcised woman soon realize that her pleasure and active participation gives them much more enjoyment as well.

The idea that sexual pleasure will now be possible for all these girls and young women who would have been denied it before is fantastic. It shouldn't be underestimated in itself as a force that will propel this generation of women towards greater equality with their menfolk. Nothing changes in Africa? Don't you believe it!

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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