It took me some time before I finally felt that I could write about this topic. It is no easy subject to approach. It is actually way more complex than what I thought of it before coming here. And it has to change.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Excision. Or female circumcision as it is called here.
The past weeks, I visited two Maasai villages outisde Arusha, past Kisongo, to discover the amazing work that HiMS – an NGO working on health issues – has been doing to fight FGM. We met women that entered the fight, for themselves and for their daughters. We met women that gave up their tools, literally, and stopped ‘practicing’. We met men that were supporting them. We met men that were enraged by this tradition. We met amazing persons, an awakening from inside the Maasai communities and an impulse from outside.
What surprised me most was how eager the men were to discuss about the topic, to listen to our opposite westerners’ point of view. To listen to a woman’s point of view. Before getting to know more about the Maasai society I had this image of extremely tough men, dominating their communities, crushing women, having no respect for the female gender (which is not completely wrong). I did not imagine we could reach out to them. Let alone be heard and work together for the same cause: stop the mutilation.
The world reminded me again that the picture is never as black and white as it seems to be. It is colorful, and I remembered that the first rays of dawn are the ones that eventually chase away the shadows. Those men and women are the first rays of dawn.
On a side note, when I came to Tanzania I did not think I would be working on female genital mutilation. But you got to follow the path that life draws before your every step. Learn, every day, and take every lesson that is offered to you.
Mama Makrine is a formidable woman, working with HiMS. She makes an amazing work bringing awareness on the issue. Mama Makrine had a very poignant way of describing the consequences of excision, leaving no detail out and using models showing the different types of circumcision and the harm of each, without expressing judgment on the practice. The details of it were sending the message loudly and clearly enough. In the first draft of this article I left out the description, myself feeling uncomfortable about it. But it has to be told, you need to know.
There are three main types of female circumcision. I am going to be using the definitions given by the World Health Organisation, first because it is difficult for me to describe the procedures and second because the definitions they give are very accurate and easy to grasp.
-Type I is the ‘partial or total removal of the clitoris’. It is the least intrusive one, relatively speaking.
-Type II is the ‘partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora‘. It is the widest practice in Tanzania.
-Type III is the most intrusive. It is the ‘narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora with or without excision of the clitoris‘. I have to ad to this definition that usually, everything is removed. The vaginal orifice is left to about 2cm diameter, but can also be smaller. An extensive scar is left. Skin tissue becomes very thick. This results in the impossibility of sexual intercourse without recutting, operated with a blade or with sharp glass. The woman is ‘restitched‘ after the intercourse, and has to undertake recuttings every time she has a sexual intercourse. The presence of the thick scarified skin around the narrowed vaginal orifice causes complications during delivery. The baby encounters difficulties getting out, and can die from suffocation. The baby can survive the procedure, but still suffer from lack of oxygenation of his brain and grow with alteration of his mental faculties. In the Maasai community, handicapped children are consider as a disgrace and/or a curse and are usually rejected.
I am still feeling confused about all that I have learned. Not about the fact that it has to stop, no. But on how to do it. The question is very complex as there are various problematic angles: cultural, traditional, psychological, societal, familial, individual and communal; there are also all the questions about identity. As a Maasai, as a woman, as a mother, as a wife. When we were talking to the men – whom all agreed on the fact that it had to stop- there still was a thing that seem to disturb them. Circumcision is a tradition so ingrained in the Maasai culture, that it sort of became part of their identity. What makes them different. What makes them Maasai.
Of course, the villagers we worked with have already been convinced of the harms of FGM, but they still expressed this concern, and it is an important one because this is a very large reason why many other Maasai people would not give up on the practice.
The way is still long before ending female circumcision for good, but men and women already started walking down that road. Change is in movement, it cannot be stopped anymore.
African lesson n°8: The way up the mountain is long and strenuous, but pole pole you will reach the summit.