Standing Up To Ancient Custom

African Women

Oureye Sall was born into a caste in which men traditionally work iron and women circumcise girls.

But 30 years ago Ms. Sall broke with tradition, as well as her sole source of income, after her own daughter was nearly killed by the procedure. Sall never performed the operation again.

Her action had little effect for decades. Other women in this poor village 70 miles south of Senegal's capital, merely took up her lucrative work, helping perpetuate what opponents call female genital mutilation (FGM). In Senegal, the practice has been seen as an essential rite of passage into adulthood.

But then in November, Sall's village, known as Ngerin Bambara, decided to stop the ancient African practice. And in February, members of 12 other villages of the Bambara tribe also renounced the practice in a formal declaration in the village of Diabougou.

While individuals have tried to stop the practice in the past, this is the first time villages have acted collectively to stop FGM, according to UNICEF. On June 1, 15 more villages in Senegal's southern region followed suit. The villagers' decisions surprised activists who had been largely unsuccessful in their anti-FGM campaign.

Some 100 million to 130 million African girls and women have undergone the practice, UNICEF claims, and 6,000 more are subjected to it each day.

One explanation for the change is that in all the villages that have so far ended the practice, women have undergone an 18-month education program run by an African nongovernmental organization, Tostan, and funded by UNICEF, that had a component on FGM.

Sall, now a leader of the women's group in Ngerin Bambara, told how the program altered their lives. "Tostan taught us that it is OK to speak our mind," she said. Other women said that with the program they now have a new role in their communities and a sense of how they can effect change.

For Sall it meant that she was able to talk publicly for the first time about what happened to her daughter. "I could say that I think our traditions need to change," she says.

The women also learn principles of democracy and human rights, basic reading and writing skills, hygiene, and women's health. But the core of the program, say organizers, is problem solving, confidence building, self-awareness, and assertiveness training.

Looking toward the future

"What do you hope your village will be like in 10 years time?" a Tostan coordinator asks in Ngerin Bambara, sitting in the dust with a circle of 30 village women and their children under a neem tree. Some respond that they want running water and electricity, others say they want their village to be more like America. All hope that as women they can play a part in effecting change.

The program sounds more like an encounter group than a conventional class when described by Molly Melching, Tostan's Texas-born director, who has lived in Senegal for 23 years. "It is a nurturing space where villagers can think and talk freely," she says.

She stresses that it is important not to judge, even when it comes to FGM. "We don't even call it 'female genital mutilation' but 'female genital cutting,' " she says.

Melching complains that often anti-circumcision activists make assumptions about FGM that undermine their credibility. "They assume that men are forcing the women to do it or that it's because of Islam." Melching says that in Tostan "we just explain what we know about the health risks for women associated with the practice and create a forum for them to talk about it."

Letting go of tradition

Men as well as women come and talk. Many said they were torn between the evidence and the need to maintain what they saw as an essential part of Bambara identity. "It is a hard thing to admit that something you and your ancestors had considered right all your life is in fact wrong," said one of the elders who had participated in discussions.

The villagers lauded Ngerin Bambara's Islamic leader, Amadou Lamine Diang, for his part in resolving their confusion. Mr. Diang explained that "our ancestors knew why and how we performed the circumcision ritual, but now we must recognize that we have forgotten their secrets and so it is no longer possible to keep doing what they once did."

Diang also explained that FGM is not required by Islam. The decision, he said, rested with the village.

The Tostan forum allowed villagers to decide for themselves that FGM must stop, says Melching. She believes that "if only it were replicated throughout Africa the practice could be abolished."

Yet Tostan forum was not the only reason the villagers here made their decision. Sociologist Abdou Salim Fall says that as Bambara they are a minority in the Thies region and that they have slowly been assimilating with the Wolof majority, who do not practice FGM. The Bambara here all speak Wolof, and often dance and dress in the distinctive Wolof style.

"Clearly circumcision is no longer central to their cultural identity," he notes.

The Bambara in Mali - where the tribe originally come from - show no signs of stopping the practice. Miriam Troure, a women's leader from Malicounda, the first of the villages in Senegal's Thies region to publicly ban FGM, admits that persuading her relatives there to stop may be near impossible. "In Mali, they may never change," she laments.

Selling out to the West?

It was also not easy to stop in Senegal. Some villagers question the motives of the women, saying it was because they got money from UNICEF, something UNICEF officials strongly denied. However, they admit some women did receive funds for work missed while attending the program.

Melching says arguments that the women are selling out their Bambara traditions to international organizations have at times come close to erupting into violence. She also said that rumors of handouts motivated the chief of Malicounda to recently demand his cut.

Villages that have not gone through the Tostan program were mostly cool to a UNICEF-sponsored bus load of villagers who recently came there to persuade them to stop FGM. In one meeting at the village of Tartin, one elder asked why, if UNICEF was concerned about the health of his people, it didn't supply them with basic medicine instead of interfering in their traditions.

At a meeting in Velingara, one man yelled out that such matters should not be discussed in public in Bambara society. "This is a vulgarity that people do in the West," he fumed. "Have you no shame!"

But Sall argued that real change only comes when people talk openly together.

For Melching "these women are like Rosa Parks," she said, referring to the African-American woman whose action started the civil rights movement in the United States. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton met the Malicounda women when she visited Senegal in April.

Banning FGM

The women's actions are also resonating in the Senegalese government. Noting that the Diabougou declaration demonstrates grass-roots support to stop FGM, President Abdou Diouf has proposed a new law making the practice illegal.

Both parents and circumcisers could face five years in jail.

But while Melching is pleased that the government recognizes the women's efforts, she is wary of criminalizing those who still do it. "It could drive the practice underground." In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast, FGM has been illegal for years, but it continues unabated.

Some even question whether villages that have signed the Diabougou declaration will really stop. "With the history of domination in Africa we have learned to accommodate the wishes of outsiders," said a Senegalese professional in Dakar who asked that his name not be used.

"These villagers are doing exactly what the international organizations want them to do. Let's see what will happen when they leave."

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