An ordinary razor blade, a sharp knife, or a shard of broken glass. The mother and the aunts restrain the little girl while a woman is paid to inflict a pain so intense that it will never be forgotten. Afterwards the girl won’t be able to move for a week, waiting for the wound to heal and the whole family praying it won’t get infected.
For more than 125 million women around the world, the passage from infancy to adulthood is marked by the blood that comes from a female genital mutilation (FGM). The procedure comprises cutting the clitoris, sometimes scraping away the labia minora, up to the most extreme form: removal of all the external genitalia and sewing the incision closed leaving a small hole for menstrual flow and urine, which will later be cut open on the girl’s wedding night. An obligatory ritual in certain societies, it is believed to “purify” women from their femininity, sentencing them to undergo excruciating pain to make them virgins for life, resistant to sexual pleasure, and therefore — the main aim — make them devoted and faithful wives.
According to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), the victims are concentrated in 29 countries: with the exception of Yemen and Iraq, all the others are in Africa.
In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that FGM constitutes a form of gender abuse, freeing it from the former definition — which was too exotic, too culturally distant from us — of “harmful traditional practice.”
That’s why today, Nov. 25, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we are focusing on the humiliating tradition of “the cut” still practiced in Africa. By means of an interactive map — the result of a data journalism survey that cross-referenced data from the UN agencies UNICEF and UNFPA, the WHO, the U.S. Department of State, the former UK Border Agency (UKBA) and other non-profit organizations — you will be able to explore both the global and local impact of an ancient practice that is still too often clouded by clichés and myths: such as the misconception that associates it with Islam, when actually no Surah in the Koran prescribes female circumcision. In fact, in some countries — Egypt being the first in 2006 — eminent Islamic scholars have outlawed it denouncing it as anti-religious.
FGM is rather a social norm with blurry historical roots that is undeniably linked to female inequality. In Somali tradition, for example, it is considered an act of purification (halalayn): an uncircumcised girl is physically and morally unclean, while infibulation creates a beautiful and ethically superior woman who, in preparation for marriage, can represent her family in the most respectable way. For the Maasai People in Kenya and Tanzania, excision is considered a necessary passage from infancy to adulthood. While in Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia it is part of the initiation ceremony into secret societies.
But no matter where or why, the incision leaves scars on the women’s psyche and triggers a vicious cycle that hinders social development. Girls who have been cut have in fact a higher rate of illiteracy: They must leave school and get married because they are considered grown women, even though they may be only 10 or 11 years old. Furthermore, FGM causes severe health complications in childbirth: in countries where it is practiced, with the exception of Egypt, the maternal-infant mortality rate is much higher than the average of developing countries.
Our map is not limited to the 27 African countries indicated by UNICEF and WHO as at-risk of FGM, since elsewhere — such as in Rwanda and Zimbabwe — other publications report that the practice exists, even though to a lesser extent. And in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, although FGM is completely foreign to the culture, it has nevertheless been the source of recent debate.
In terms of percentages, Somalia and Somaliland are the most entrenched, with 98% of women undergoing FGM. Extremely high prevalence is also found in Guinea (96%), Djibouti (93%), Egypt (91%), Eritrea (89%), Mali (89%), Sierra Leone (88%) and Sudan (88%), while Niger (2%), Cameroon (1%) and Uganda (1%) appear at the bottom of the list. However, within one single country, there are often vast differences between Africa’s some 3,000 different ethnic groups.
In Kenya, where the national prevalence level stands at 27%, among the Maasai communities FGM is practiced on 73% of the women. And in Uganda, which registers only 1%, the Pokot people in the north-west register a 95% prevalence.
If we then examine the data in absolute terms, Egypt is the universal capital of FGM, with its 27.2 million female victims. In second place we find Ethiopia with 23.8 million, and third goes to Nigeria with 19.9 million. Of the 27 African countries considered by UNICEF and WHO, 14 of them account for over one million victims each.
But African women don’t just stand by and watch. Since the 1970s, there have been activists and ordinary women alike fighting to try to eradicate FGM. Thanks to their campaigns, 21 countries where FGM is currently practiced have national laws that punish it as a crime, even though the tradition is still performed illegally, especially in remote rural areas. The first country to enact a law criminalizing FGM was Guinea in 1965; the most recent was Nigeria in May of this year.
An important push for reform was given by the Maputo Protocol on the African women’s rights, adopted by the African Union on July 11, 2003. For the first time in history, Article 5 of the charter prohibits and condemns all traditional harmful physical and psychological practices on women. So today, only six African countries are still without laws abolishing FGM (Cameroon, Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Somalia/Somaliland) but even in countries where FGM is punishable as a crime, convictions are rare: one in Egypt last year, another one in Guinea-Bissau in December 2014, 10 in Côte d’Ivoire from 2012 to the present. Still, Burkina Faso boasts 97 convictions between 1997 and 2005.
Many local non-profit organizations, some of which are supported by a UNICEF/UNFPA joint program launched in 2008, are committed to raising awareness in communities in order to abolish FGM. And there are many African women who have been fighting for years in the frontlines of this war. One such activist is Edna Adan Ismail who has been advocating for 40 years, first in Somalia and now in Somaliland. A midwife, former First Lady and Minister, in the 1970s she was the first person in the Horn of Africa to publicly denounce the great taboo. Today, at 78, she runs a hospital she built with her own funds in the capital city of Hargeisa.
On the other side of the continent, in Benin, the most recognizable spokesperson for women’s liberation is Isabelle Ekue Tevoedjre, 85, the founder of the local Inter-African Committee (IAC) on traditional harmful practices. In Egypt, the struggle against FGM is nourished by the pride of the lawyer Reda el-Danbouki, who secured the first ever conviction for FGM crime in the history of her country, in January 2015. In Mali Fatoumata Coulibaly, a journalist, director and actress, in 2004 shocked audiences at the Cannes Film Festival with her film Moolaadé on the horrors of FGM. And in 2003 it was an African First Lady, Stella Obasanjo, wife of former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, who launched the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, which has been held each Feb. 6 ever since.
So, how much longer will it take to free Africa from FGM? Some countries already register considerable progress: In Benin, the annual rate of reduction among girls aged 15-19 is 23%, in Nigeria 7%, in Egypt 6%, in Niger 5%, in Kenya 4% and in Senegal 3%. But this race must be accelerated.
What could then be the winning strategy for the future? “That you Westerners support us in our battle,” declares Edna Adan Ismail in Somaliland. “Because it isn’t just an African problem anymore. Through immigration, girls that have been cut are in your schools, in your hospitals: Today the world shares our pain, and it must also share the responsibility. You were able to reach the moon, but you can’t help African women to annihilate a tradition that kills them. We are asking for your partnership, which must go beyond slogans, driven by our shared humanity.”
*Photography: Simona Ghizzoni, Maps and graphic: Alessandro D’Alfonso, Data research: Emanuela Zuccalà, Valeria De Berardinis, Video: Emanuela Zuccalà, Simona Ghizzoni, Video editing: Paolo Turla
**This report is part of the UNCUT project on female genital mutilations (FGM). Produced with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program” of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona.
Copyright: Emanuela Zuccalà Simona Ghizzoni – Zona.