Slowly, Africa rethinks a tradition
Some villages stop the practice of female genital mutilation as aid workers try persuasion, not coercion.
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This participatory approach is increasingly prevalent, says Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, on a visit to Ethiopia last month. "Our paradigm of development is to ... help a community decide what is best for itself," she told African development specialists. "No more specialists and advisers jetting in from the West - only to set up projects which are totally unsustainable."Skip to next paragraph
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When it comes to FGM, there are a growing indications this new approach is working. In Senegal and Guinea, for example, women's groups are helping to create alternative rites of passage that emphasize positive cultural rituals without FGM. In Uganda, education projects by local NGOs have managed to completely stop the practice in some regions.
And in Ethiopia, "uncircumcised weddings" may be catching on. This past summer, Bogaletch Gebre, who directs Ethiopia's Kembatta Women's Center, participated in the first such event in her home district of Kembatta. The bride wore a sign reading: "I am proud to be uncircumcised." The groom wore one saying: "I am proud to be marrying an uncircumcised girl." The guests wore T-shirts supporting the occasion. National TV filmed it.
For Ms. Gebre, who was six years old when she was circumcised, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "That wedding day was not only about one couple," says Gebre. "It was about our whole world changing.... I have no doubt that this country can and will change."
But change comes slowly. Two years ago, Nasro Ali's mother watched as Doho women held their hands over her 11-year-old daughter's mouth and circumcised her with a rusty knife. Then Ali's legs were tied together and she was carried off, whimpering and faint, to lie, bound, for three weeks, until the blood coagulated. Milk was poured over her to "facilitate adhesion." She was now ready for marriage.
The practice, by any account, brings untold suffering: women have trouble urinating, get infections during menstruation, experience no sexual pleasure, and need to be cut open - and sewed together afterward- on their wedding nights and when they bear children. Maternal and childbirth mortality rates here, as well as infertility rates, are among the highest in the world.
Ali's face muscles contract when asked about her circumcision. "I cried so very much," she says. "I would not want my own daughter to go through this." She looks at the girls and women sitting outside. "But that is not possible," she adds, slowly. "Because of my grandmother. Because of my mother. Because of tradition. I would have her cut."
"I can't say for sure anymore," admits Hassan, the traditional circumciser, musing that maybe her own great-granddaughter will only be symbolically cut, or not at all. The women giggle nervously. And Ali bends her head and pulls a colorful scarf around her sunken young face, hiding a smile.