It is a sunny day, hot even in December as Christmas nears in a rural village in Kenya, up somewhere near the borders of Uganda and what is now South Sudan.
There is a festive spirit and the young girls are gathered and song and dance reverberate across the hills of West Pokot, bracing for ceremony.
“I thought it was a normal celebration, everyone was smiling,” recalls Domtila Chesang. “Everyone is there, watching. First there is a little cut, just a little, but then there is the second cut, everything is sliced off, and only the women can watch.”
That cut, as some people delicately call it, is a clitoridectomy. An excision. The forcible removal of the clitoris and labia – a woman’s genitals, pure and simple.
“I saw my cousin on the floor, screaming, with blood everywhere. I was hiding, no one knew I was there. And I decided I did not want that.”
Domtila stands, her dignity tinged with passion, her crimson dress a fiery surprise against the wintery sobriety of this formal United Nations meeting in Geneva’s hallowed Palais des Nations.
“I have had enough of conferences,” she challenges the audience, “enough of talking. It is now time to help us on the ground.”
And everyone applauds.
In the stuffy halls of global decision-making, dedicated diplomats edge forward on the world’s delicate issues. Even on the subject of female genital mutilation, known as FGM, there are resolutions that condemn the practice and encourage governments to pass laws against it.
Just because a law exists, however, doesn’t mean it will be applied well, or even applied at all.
So the practice continues.
While it stretches our 21st century imagination, between 100 million and 140 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. Unless things change fast, 15 million additional girls aged 15-19 will be cut, mutilated, tortured – call it what you will – by 2020.
Cutting is an odd word here. For years it has been used to justify a practice that some have called cultural, others religious, but which is neither more nor less than torture, an effort to control women and an unequivocal violation of human rights.
There are many excuses – or “reasons” – that have been used to justify the tradition of FGM:
- It is a religious ritual, holy to Islam (not true – it predates Islam and not even the international Islamic group that represents Muslims globally, the OIC, is in favor of it)
- It preserves a woman’s virginity (yes, through pain, but should that not be her choice?)
- It is more hygienic (ah yes, with a rusty knife, on the ground, in a hut)
- It is a rite of passage into adulthood and often a prerequisite for marriage (in many societies this is true – but other less harmful rites can be substituted)
- It controls waywardness in girls and prevents them from having premarital sex (as if!) and lessens their desire for sex
- It increases fertility (now drifting into the area of myth and old wives’ tales)
- It ‘feminizes’ girls because the clitoris is seen as a male organ (and… that might mean… competition? equality?)
I cannot imagine what it must be like to be held down by half a dozen women I know and trust, at an age young enough to be lied to but old enough to doubt. The fear, the pain, the loathing.
Many of these so-called ‘circumcisions’ are done in putrid conditions, with one knife used for dozens of girls, an ideal way to spread HIV or other blood-borne diseases. Some girls become ill, others die, now, soon or later, in childbirth when their birth canal is too small to let a baby through.
Some societies are recognizing the barbarity of the conditions under which FGM is practiced so doctors are intervening and mutilating women under anesthetic, thinking this makes it somehow more humane. Mothers may take their daughters to doctors hoping for an easier cut and if the doctor says No, the girls may end up in a hut, with a rusty knife, bleeding away on a straw pallet.
Nor is FGM limited to far-off corners of the world like Africa or Asia. FGM happens right here, in London, in New York, in Paris, often practiced by medical personnel who are still tied to their homeland’s traditions. Is that acceptable? No. Health workers should be pushing back vehemently and simply refusing to do this, educating parents instead.
It’s a complicated issue because anything cultural tends to be deeply ingrained. Change one thing and there is often a cascade effect that changes many more things and this is the type of change a conservative society – as most that oppress women are – abhors.
As Domtila stood regally – “I don’t like to speak sitting down” – she told us that the more girls know, the less they will stand for this mutilation. Recently she took part in a poster campaign organized by The Guardian‘s Campaign to End FGM and supported by the UNFPA/UNICEF Joint Programme on FGM and it made a difference. It gave people arguments to fight the practice and provided answers to some of their questions.
Each year on 6 February – designated by the United Nations as the International Day for Zero Tolerance for FGM – a shaft of light focusses on the issue and reminds us all that much has been done. Governments are investigating and passing laws, and in the most recent development a doctor in Egypt is convicted of FGM, this in a country where more than 90% of the women have been maimed.
Domtila’s road is anything but straight. It isn’t easy to stand up to family, let alone society. She did it mostly alone, with the help of British midwife Cathleen Holland who once witnessed a ceremony and was so horrified by it she decided to raise money to help.
Domtila raises funds for awareness and advocates with the Guardian’s campaign and with Kepsteno Rotwo (Abandon the Knife) pressure group, which she co-founded. She is optimistic and believes that change is coming.
“It’s not from the outside, from politicians,” she says. ” We are the ones wanting change. We, the women.”