By Emma Batha
LONDON (TrustLaw) - When Marietou Diarra’s first daughter died after undergoing ritual genital cutting she was told the spirits had taken her. When her second daughter died the same way the community was too afraid to even tell her and buried the girl in secret.
Today Diarra is an activist working for Tostan, a grassroots organisation that has been instrumental in getting thousands of villages in Senegal to abandon female genital cutting (FGC).
Tostan’s founder Molly Melching believes that within a few years Senegal could become the first country in Africa to end FGC - a practice that is more than 2000 years old.
“It’s a growing movement. It’s accelerating and it’s the people themselves who are leading that movement, which is tremendously exciting,” said Melching, an American who has lived in Senegal since falling in love with the West African country during a student exchange in 1974.
Senegal is one of 28 African countries where cutting is practised. Across the continent, some 3 million girls are thought to undergo FGC every year.
The practice - more commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM) - involves the partial or total removal of external genitalia. In its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also stitched together or sealed.
The cutting, usually organised by the women in the family, is done with anything from razor blades to scissors, broken glass and tin can lids.
Parents say the ritual brings social status and is a prerequisite for marriage. Many also believe it is required by religion. Diarra says uncut girls are ostracised – no one will even take water or food from them.
But cutting can cause serious health problems including haemorrhaging, chronic infections, cysts and infertility. It also increases the risk of labour complications and newborn deaths.
Although Tostan has become famous for its work in reducing FGC in Senegal, that was not the goal when Melching set it up in 1991.
Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in the Wolof language, is dedicated to empowering girls and women through education. Its programmes teach literacy, project management skills, health and human rights.
It was the women themselves who asked to learn more about FGC, says Melching, who has won numerous awards for her work.
When the inhabitants of Malicounda Bambara village in western Senegal stood up in 1997 and made a public declaration that they were abandoning FGC, Melching was astonished.
“I was more surprised than anybody. It came from them. We don’t ask people to abandon. We give them information,” added Melching, who will be speaking at the TrustLaw Women’s Rights Conference, which opens in London on Dec. 4.
The story of Malicounda Bambara made headlines, but a local religious leader, Imam Demba Diawara, quickly warned Melching that the success would be short-lived unless the surrounding intermarrying communities were persuaded to do likewise.
Diawara then walked from village to village to talk to people about FGC, and the first collective declaration to stop the practice was held on Feb. 14, 1998. Marietou Diarra was among those who renounced the tradition that day.
It may seem unrealistic to expect 2000 years of tradition to vanish in the space of a generation, but Melching points to the speed with which foot-binding disappeared in China.
As with FGC, parents in China bound their daughters’ feet to ensure they could find a husband. The practice ended as networks of intermarrying communities came together and pledged to abandon it, Melching says.
Today some 5,000 communities in Senegal have publically abandoned FGC. And almost 1,000 more have made declarations in Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Somalia, Djibouti, Mali and Burkina Faso.
One thing Melching is adamant about is that you never go into a community and tell them what to do.
“It’s not about fighting against the tradition. It’s about choosing health and human rights,” she said. “You don’t fight a social norm because people are very defensive. They’ve done something all their life so if you come and tell them to stop they are immediately resistant.”
It is for this reason Tostan uses the word “cutting” rather than “mutilation”, which is less judgmental and therefore more effective in opening up discussion.
Tostan’s success rests in large part on people like Marietou Diarra who travel between villages to talk about cutting.
But the activists are not all women. Another person who has deeply moved Melching is Boubou Sall, a father who persuaded many communities to give up FGC after losing his own daughter.
In his village they used a sacred, ancestral knife which was never washed. Two weeks after his daughter was cut she got a fever.
He took her to the doctor who told him she had tetanus. But it was too late. She was just eight years old.
It wasn’t until Sall went to a Tostan class that he realised the tetanus had been caused by the ancestral knife.
“There are many, many stories like that that people are telling for the first time. Before they never dared to talk about it. There were taboos around telling it,” Melching said. “For the first time the silence has been broken.”
Another crucial factor in Tostan’s success has been the support of religious leaders.
“They are a big part of the solution,” added Melching. “Many of them, when they find out what this (FGC) involves are shocked and say, ‘We had no idea’. Once they learn they are often extremely engaged.”
Some have put out fatwas – religious decrees - to say that cutting is not a religious obligation and is against Islam.
Melching singles out Demba Sall, a highly respected religious leader, who she says has shown great courage in speaking out in one of the most conservative regions of northern Senegal.
“He says, ‘Islam promotes the health of women and I am doing the work I think is the work of God’. He must be 88 now, but he still speaks out whenever he can,” she said.
Senegal’s government has pledged to end FGC by 2015. Most campaigners against FGC are doubtful, but Melching says the government is incredibly committed.
Sceptics point to the fact that a recent health survey showed that between 2005 and 2010 the prevalence of FGC in Senegal only dropped from 28 percent to 26 percent.
But Melching says the survey covered women aged 15-49, most of whom would have been cut before the large-scale movement for abandoning FGC began.
What is more significant, she says, is that 60 percent of women in the survey who had been cut said they had not cut their own daughters.
Tostan also plans to ramp up its work in all five neighbouring countries. Melching will shortly be travelling to Guinea Bissau where around 80 communities plan to make declarations during December and January.
This month the United Nations is expected to pass a resolution on eliminating FGM worldwide – an initiative that has been led by African countries, notably Burkina Faso.
Like Senegal, Burkino Faso has also seen considerable success in reducing FGC. However, its approach has been somewhat different.
It has prosecuted hundreds of parents and traditional cutters and set up a hotline where people can report cases of FGC. It is not a model Melching favours.
“I always say renounce and not denounce,” she said, adding that denouncing people risks creating dangerous divisions in communities and triggering a backlash.
Melching says it is important to have a law, but it is education and empowerment that will bring results.
“The thing about social change is that it can happen very quickly,” she adds. “It’s catching.”
See also: FGM: “It’s not culture, it’s child abuse” - a package of stories and videos on FGM