By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu
COTONOU, Benin, Feb 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - B rowsing a market in Parakou, a city in Benin, 63-year-old Yon Sokogi was troubled by the latest gossip about a teenage bride rejected by her husband after she lost control of her bladder.
Recognising this as a complication of female genital mutilation (FGM), Sokogi decided to visit 19-year-old Kpaaré, a mother-of-two, in the hope of convincing her go to a hospital.
But Sokogi is not a typical health worker.
She is a cutter-turned-counsellor, who put down the knife five years ago - after cutting more than 1,500 girls during a 20-year period - to instead work towards stamping out FGM.
"I did it with a knife, without anaesthesia, and without any medical training," Sokogi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, explaining how her mother had trained her to help carry out FGM in their village. "The number of lives I shattered is enormous."
The practice was criminalised in 2003 in the tiny West African nation of Benin, where one in 11 women and girls have been cut - a rate which has almost halved since 2000 - according to data from the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
However, an adviser to Benin's first lady Claudine Talon said last week the practice had gone underground, and warned that up to three in 10 women and girls may have undergone FGM.
Facing the risk of up to 20 years in prison, dozens of women like Sokogi are being persuaded by advocacy groups to put down the knife and retrain as counsellors in what is believed to be the first initiative of its kind in West Africa.
These counsellors try to dissuade parents from cutting their daughters by explaining the harmful effects, and encourage girls suffering complications after undergoing FGM to go to hospital for treatment, rather than turning to traditional healers.
"This is a great first for Benin, and an example that other nations must follow," said Nicolas Biaou, head of Mortiz, one of several grassroots groups which have helped to convert more than 30 cutters to counsellors across the country.
CUTTER TO COUNSELLOR
Some 200 million girls and women worldwide are estimated to have undergone FGM, which is practiced in a swathe of African countries and parts of the Middle East and Asia.
The ancient ritual, which is often seen as a gateway to marriage and a way of preserving a girl's purity, can lead to a lifetime of physical, psychological and sexual problems.
For Kpaaré, who was cut at the age of 13, the birth of her second child was shortly followed by urinary incontinence, and traumatic flashbacks of the night she was laid on the ground naked - legs spread apart - with four women pinning her down.
"I felt a sharp pain in my vagina and saw the blood flow, Kpaaré said in her home in Parakou. "I wanted to scream but the women told me to shut up as a real woman must know how to bear pain, and that I would dishonour my mother if I cried."
"So I stayed silent, and cried in my heart," she added.
Having been shunned by her community, and told by a traditional healer that the incontinence was as result of black magic used against her by one of her husband's other wives, Kpaaré was relieved when Sokogi knocked on her door last month.
Sokogi's conversion from cutter to counsellor involved training sessions with nurses, who explained the risk of infections, vaginal tears, and complications during pregnancy.
Eventually, Sokogi started visiting homes, no longer to cut girls, but to inform them and their parents of the dangers. She said her proudest achievement is having saved 11 girls from FGM.
"The girls do not know what they are suffering, how to react or who to talk to," she said. "It is easier for them to confide in me because I am a woman, a victim and a former cutter."
While its neighbours such as Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone have some of the world's highest rates of FGM, around 90 percent or higher, the practice has steadily waned in Benin since it was made a crime in 2003, activists and state officials say.
The fact that being complicit in the carrying out of FGM and failing to report it were also made punishable by between three and 20 years in prison sent out a strong message, according to Inès Hadonou-Toffoun, an official at the justice ministry.
The state followed up the law with a cross-border crackdown on people moving between Benin and neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo to carry out FGM, said Claire Houngan Ayemonna, a magistrate and formerly minister of families and social affairs.
However, families are still crossing borders to get their girls cut, while some cutters in Benin who had abandoned the practice have also resumed their work, an adviser to first lady Talon told an international conference on FGM in Rome last week.
Yet for Sokogi, the guilt she suffered after the death of four girls she cut means she will never again pick up the knife.
"The village elders said it was due to sorcery ... but a health worker showed me that one died of a haemorrhage, and explained the dangers," she said. "My conscience overcame me."
"For us, FGM was a cultural event, a rite of passage, and similar to circumcision for boys," she said. "I now know I have done a lot of harm to these girls, and I am in a lot of pain."
(Reporting by Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)