Female Genital Mutilation and the Women Who Practice It
As countries around the world crack down on the brutal procedure, the campaign against FGM finds an unusual ally in those who once wielded the knife themselves.
All photos courtesy of Action Aid
Jane first practiced on her sister. She was barely 15, but had already spent years preparing for this day. She remembered the laborious hours of training, knelt at her grandmother's side, eyes locked on the glistening edge of a pointed blade that she'd become all too familiar with. Her village elders had told her that if she watched carefully, she'd learn the necessary level of skill. It only took her a couple of times to nail the angle before she moved on to the younger girls of her family.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a horrific form of sexual violence--but contrary to what many believe, it's women who carry out the 'cutting' and organize the coming-of-age celebrations that follow. The practice is carried out in 29 countries around the world, mainly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The physical process of FGM or female circumcision varies from country to country and cutter to cutter, but has been classified by the World Health Organization into three broad types. Typically carried out on girls as young as seven years old, the elders of the community either choose to perform a clitoridectomy, involving the partial or total removal of the clitoris; an excision, in which the inner labia is removed along with the clitoris; or an infibulation, where the vaginal opening is narrowed or sealed by repositioning the inner labia and sewing it shut.
In 80 percent of cases, all three types are carried out in unsanitary conditions, with no pain relief whatsoever. Aftercare usually consists of solitary confinement in a lightless room, with the occasional pail of salted water to bathe the resulting wounds.
The list of potential side effects includes chronic incontinence; keloid vaginal scars; vulval abscesses; HIV; hemorrhage, and death.
Early last week, the Somali government indicated that plans were in motion to ban FGM. "Time has come to eradicate this bad practice and protect the rights of girls and women in our country," Sahra Mohammed Ali Samatar, the minister of women's affairs, said at a recent conference in Mogadishu.
According to 2014 figures from Unicef, 98 percent of girls are subject to FGM in Somalia, even though cutting was prohibited in 2012 by its new constitution. That figure is 91 percent in Egypt; 89 percent in Mali; 66 percent in Liberia; 76 percent in Burkina Faso; 88 percent in Sudan, and 27 percent in both Kenya and Nigeria.
A recent Equality Now report on FGM prevalence within the UK found 137,000 victims across the country, from inner London to the outskirts of Wales. More than 500 new cases of women being treated for FGM-related injuries emerge every month and 65,000 girls are considered at risk of undergoing the. The list of potential side effects includes chronic incontinence; toxic discharge spreading to the uterus and ovaries; keloid vaginal scars; vulval abscesses; HIV; prolonged and obstructed labor; neonatal brain damage; hemorrhage, and death.
There is no one more aware of these complications than 58-year-old Jane. Over a period of 30 years, Jane cut the vaginas of more than a hundred girls in the Kongelai region of Western Kenya.
"If you want to be a cutter, you can choose to be a cutter," Jane says. After watching her mother and grandmother force prepubescent girls into the animal sheds at the back of the village to "make them clean and pure", Jane begged, "Let me be the one to do this."
"When that moment arrives, when you feel like you're ready to undertake the procedure, you watch how she [the cutter] holds the knife. She shows you this is how and where you cut it," Jane says. "That's how you start."
It was only when Jane was married a few years later that she realized how FGM had destroyed her own body.
"When my husband made love to me," she explains, "the wound and the scar cracked again. My husband didn't want to stop what he was doing. It was so painful. I really struggled with that as it soon became a very big swelling."
Then Jane fell pregnant. During an excruciating 14-hour labor, she suffered severe complications. Her vaginal opening was obstructed from the makeshift 'stitching' of her FGM procedure, causing a blockage to the birth canal. When the villagers sunk a knife into Jane's wounds to make way for her baby, the blade caught the newborn's skull. The child survived only briefly and was severely disabled for its short life. Soon afterwards, she stopped cutting.
"I felt pained because of the girls I was cutting," she says, 'this happens to them too. Others faint, others bleed."
If I was to say no, I would not be here now, talking to you.
For 50-year-old Mary in Kenya, it was watching as girl almost bleed to death that gave her "second thoughts" after 20 bloody years as West Pokot'"best cutter'. Cutting girls was customary in Mary's family, an expectation of the transition into womanhood. Her description of the event is disturbingly upbeat, verging on celebratory.
"The whole community was watching and the crowd had been gathering since morning," she says, "I'd give the girl courage and tell her, be calm, I am here for you. It can be slippery, so we use some ash to get a good grip. There are veins there. It's very difficult, very technical. You have to be really careful."
Despite her initial nerves, Mary built up quite a respectable reputation as 'best cutter' amongst the mucasas (male village chiefs) of the community. One day, she found herself drenched in blood, the limp body of that day's target sprawled across her lap. "She almost died. That's when I started to have second thoughts".
These two women were subject to the procedure themselves, but were somehow still able to inflict the same on hundreds of girls and even their own daughters. But according to Gambian cutter Maimouna Jawo, who fled to the UK two years ago, there isn't a choice.
"If I was to say no, I would not be here now, talking to you," Jawo tells me. For her, the agonizing pain of her own operation was nothing compared to the sinister force of her family and elders. From the age of 12, Jawo's mother made her fate painfully clear, stopping her education and forcing her to assist in cutting procedures of her family.
"When you are trained as a cutter you are stopped from going to school," she says, "It's painful when you see all your friends going to school and you cannot."
In hushed and nervous tones, the asylum seeker tells me that although she felt "so guilty" and was aware that her actions were "not right and unfair," the alternative was far worse.
"They told me, 'You are going to be the leader here.' You are going to be respected by every woman in this place," she says. "If you're not cut, you're not a clean woman. You are still a girl and you will be called names. No one will want to marry you and that is the worst thing."
During one cutting procedure, the girl collapsed. Her elders' explanation? "They tell you it's witchcraft," she says. "If the girl dies, they'll just say it's because the mother is a witch".
During the FGM ceremony for Jawo's own daughter, her child screamed and pleaded for her to stop cutting. Jawo knew then that it had to end. She escaped to London, where she currently lives in a temporary hostel. Having escaped from Gambia in 2012 without a word to her family, she remains at the mercy of the Home Office. If she stays, she abandons her daughters but is free from a life of merciless violence. If she's sent back, she'll be forced to cut--or be killed.
The easiest way to dismiss pain and not to deal with it is to legitimize it. The easiest way to legitimize it is to perpetrate the crime and carry it on.
It's not life or death for all cutters. But for many women, repressive social norms combine with deep-rooted inequality and lack of education to produce the conditions necessary for FGM to thrive.
Nimco Ali, an FGM survivor and the co-founder of FGM organization Daughters of Eve, believes that resistance can only occur when there is a true understanding of the practice in the context of a patriarchal and oppressive society.
Ali argues that carrying out the procedure yourself legitimizes the traumatic experience and is therefore an effective form of repression. "The easiest way to dismiss pain and not to deal with it is to legitimize it," she says, "and the easiest way to legitimize it is to perpetrate the crime and carry it on."
Mary Wandia is the Kenya-based FGM program manager for the international human rights charity Equality Now. "Sexual violence is prevalent in many contexts and in many different forms," she explains. "It's not just rural communities. Higher prevalence rates have been recorded within rural communities with certain factors such as education and access to information, wealth and religion."
So why is torturing their own daughters or murdering an innocent girl enough of a terrifying education against FGM for some women--but not all? Wandia argues that the superpowers of socialization should never be underestimated. "Mothers believe that they're doing the best for their daughters as FGM is often justified on the basis of 'purity,' as a form of sexual control and honor."
Thousands of years of normalized brutality are not easily reversed, but FGM prevalence rates have begun to decline thanks to a combination of grassroots education and strict FGM laws.
"Local education and community work is essential," Wandia says. "We've also seen the media's impact in Kenya and how FGM can be eliminated more successfully when it is brought out of the shadows."
I didn't want to be the reason a girl would not be able to go to school.
Four years ago, the charity Action Aid paid a visit to West Pokot. Last year, it conducted 483 projects in communities across Africa and mobilized 151,000 women-- Mary and Jane among them--to challenge practices of sexual violence.
When Mary's aid worker told her about the effects of FGM on young girls' education, she was shocked and began reporting other cutters in the community to the authorities. "I didn't want to be the reason a girl would not be able to go to school," she says.
Both Mary and Jane act as 'watcher women' for their rural Kenyan villages. With the maximum penalty in Kenya for carrying out FGM a ten-year prison sentence, the fear of getting caught is an effective deterrent. WHO intervention involving more than 2,000 women across Africa and Egypt found that increasing knowledge led to a commitment to abandoning FGM and a decrease in the number of women having their daughters cut.
For both Jane and Mary, there's no doubting the success of their intervention. After 20 years of clitoral cutting, excisions and infibulations, ex-cutter Mary has turned her back on FGM once and for all. "I would never do it again," she says. "Not for anything."
Find out more about Action Aid's campaign to end female genital mutilation here.