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