Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Heartbreak

Last week, I witnessed a heartbreaking Pulaar custom. While I was out in the fields one morning, my host mothers lured my little host sisters and nieces (ages 4-6) into a hut with promises of kosam (home-made yogurt, a village treat) for breakfast. There, they were forcibly circumcised. It was supposed to be kept a secret from me, but the change of attitude was evident when I entered my compound. For starters, my sisters didn't come running to greet me like they always do and there were a bunch of women in my compound including the female elders, all of them with they're eyes following me but everyone avoiding me, real strange in a culture that loves to greet. My brother filled me in later over lunch and I couldn't help but start crying.  As I saw it, it was sexual abuse on little girls too young to have any idea what happened to them and I was overcome with guilt at not being home to protect the girls that have grown to be family in this past year. Their behavior towards me and the exclusive was also hurtful, as it showed they were both ashamed and distrustful of me. My host brother couldn't understand; for him it's just a tradition, plus he never have a clitoris.

The tradition turned taboo ten years ago in Senegalese law, but nothing much has changed in the remote villages. Instead, the practice went underground, arguably making it more dangerous. Meanwhile, male circumcisions have adopted an air of modernity; boys are often brought to health posts for circumcision, or at least a health worker is present at village circumcisions, with access to sanitary equipment, soap, and antibiotics in case of infection. Village women circumcise girls in the secrecy of their homes under unsanitary conditions: the cutting instrument is whatever knife or razor blade is available and I know that soap is in near constant shortage in my house. Furthermore, since female genital cutting (FGC) is illegal, parents fear prosecution if they seek medical treatment for a daughter with a botched circumcision, resulting in infection or severe blood loss. These girls are condemned to die in secret. I've heard of two such deaths in my commune the past 6 months, which leads be to the believe the death rate associated with the practice is pretty high, as these deaths are not openly discussed, and then only in secret, and certainly not with an outsider.

Host siblings playing with bubbles
Hearing about these deaths in the past was shocking, but now the practice was in my home - how can I deal with that? At first I was so angry, I wanted to report all the women involved to the police; fortunately, the cellphone reception in my village is horrible. I had time to reflect and realized that reporting the crime would put my ability to work (and possibly my safety) in village in jeopardy. Even worse, if my host parents were jailed or faced a fine, the girls' education would be the first expense sacrificed to pay the bail or fine, not to mention the trauma it might cause the kids seeing their parents in such a position. Ultimately, reporting the incident would only make my girls' lives even worse.

As usual, I turned to Sam, my closest neighbor, to get me through yet another crisis; she harbored me while I cooled off and brainstormed an action plan to end FGC in the area. We've meet a couple women in the Department of Velingara who speak out against the practice. One woman works with a local radio station; we approached her to see if she would like to help us air a question and answer about the risks and realities of genital cutting in the area. She agreed, and just setting a project in motion, doing something made me feel that much better.

I asked an older host sister for more information about the project when I caught her alone, a tricking task since all the women in the compound seemed on their guard towards me. She told me more detail about the process, but admitted that it happened to her so young she doesn't remember much. After the kosam to lure you into the hut, women hold the girls down and, before the girl knows whats happening, another one cuts, not sure what all is cut, but nothing is sewn at least, i.e. infibulation. She doesn't remember being in too much pain during the 3 day healing period, though it was painful to watch my host sisters limp around, unable to bend over to retrieve the bottle caps they'd dropped. Still, he went on to talk about the health consequences of FGC that she had learned about: pain during intercourse and/or increased problems of giving birth due to scar tissue, not to mention that it's illegal. She seemed upset that it had happened to her sisters; she had also gone out that morning.

I did some more research on my own, too. There's a chapter in Half the Sky (a great book on women's rights issues worldwide by Kristof and WuDunn) that gives an overview of the subject, but gives way to lather praise on a Senegalese based organization, Tostan. A recent article in the New York Times also cited the breakthrough work that Tostan is doing to end female genital cutting. Sadly, my village and the surrounding ones a a Tostan failure: they went through the 3 year alternative education program, but have since forgotten or disregarded the literacy, health, organization, and human rights lessons provided to them. FCG still has  a tenacious grip on the cultural collective of the community, with nearly 100% circumcision rates among local women. It is abysmal feeling to know the poster child in the fight to end this practice hadn't made an impact on my community. What is a measly Peace Corps volunteer like me to do? Is there any hope for the girls of the Department of Velingara?

Welcome to the compound
One midwife at the Kounkane Health Post believes that education about FGC consequences is the best way to get women to discontinue the practice. She spoke with the Kounkane High School Girls Club that Sam and I founded last spring when the members requested more information about genital cutting. At the end of the meeting, all the members agreed they will never submit their own daughters to this practice. Neither will the sister that gave me information about cuttings in our village, if she can help it. She is in her final year of CEM (middle school) this year and says that she learned about the horrible consequences of FGC out of village, attending school in Kounkane. Educating girls provides them with the information and economic value that empowers them to speak out against cutting. Hopefully, the next generation will end this practice as more and more Senegalese girls get access to schools. Peace Corps volunteers are working to keep girls in school by providing scholarships to the best female students in middle schools throughout the country through the Michele Sylvester Scholarship (more info here).

But Lord knows I'm impatient for change. Isn't there anything else I can do?

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