You are on page 1of 5

African Activism Against Female Circumcision Is Focus of New Film

By Carolyn Weaver
New York City
18 November 2009

A new film focuses on the fight by African activists against an ancient practice that is still
performed each year on millions of girls: female circumcision, often known as FGM, or
female genital mutilation. Opponents call it a human rights abuse that destroys a woman's
ability to enjoy sex, is sometimes fatal, and frequently leads to lifelong pain and

“I was forcefully cut when I was 14 years,” says Kenyan anti-FGM activist Agnes
Pareyio. “I tried to resist; everybody was calling me a coward. There was a lot of peer
pressure on me that forced me to prove to them that I was not a coward. But I hated it.
So, I grew up hating it and made sure that not my daughter, not anybody who can listen
to me, will undergo FGM.”

The village-by-village effort of education and persuasion that Pareyio and others like her
in Somalia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Mali have taken on is the subject of "Africa
Rising: The Grassroots Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation," made by Paula
Heredia for Equality Now, a group that works to promote human rights for women.

The film opens with 14-year-old Mary Solio remembering the day she was cut. "My
father decided to marry me off. I told him no, because I wanted to continue with my
education,“ Solio says. “They beat me. They removed all my clothes and they beat me
nakedly. I ran, but they got me on the way. I cry, but nobody was there in the forest. I
cried but I don't have anybody to turn to. They beat me the same day and they took me to
the husband's home."

At least 100 million African women and girls have undergone FGM, which involves the
removal of all or part of the female genitalia. Sometimes the remaining flesh is stitched
closed, a practice called infibulation, leaving only a tiny opening for urination and
menstruation, and making intercourse and childbirth painful and hazardous. FGM can
cause immediate hemorrhaging and death or a lifetime of pain, disability and severe
emotional problems, doctors say.

Activists fight FGM by pointing out it is not practiced in most Islamic countries, and is
not mentioned in the Koran. In Somalia, where most girls are cut by the age of eight, the
film shows anti-FGM activist Hawa Aden Mohamed visiting a classroom. She tells the
schoolgirls that God created female organs for a purpose, and so removing them cannot
be right. "People are just trying to change His creation," she says. The grassroots
campaigns also involve reaching out to circumcisers, who are usually illiterate village
women, to teach them that FGM is wrong, and to help them find other ways to earn
In 2000, two sisters in Kenya, Edna and Beatrice Kandie, were told by their father that
they would soon be circumcised. They sought help from human rights lawyer Ken
Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, who successfully sued
to stop the procedure from taking place.

“At the beginning my father was very hostile, because we took him to court,” Beatrice
Kandie shyly tells the filmmakers. “It was the first time. We made history in Kenya by
taking our father to court to stop us from being circumcised."

Although Kenya subsequently outlawed FGM for girls under 18, the practice is still
routine there. Girls now sometimes run away from home to avoid it. Agnes Pareyio, a
member of the Maasai tribe, founded a safe house for girls, where she teaches girls about
other cultural traditions to prepare themselves for womanhood. And she takes the anti-
FGM campaign from village to village, explaining the law to parents and to circumcisers

“We tell them, ‘Are you aware that you are breaking the law, and can easily go to jail for
that?” she said in an interview. “And at times we tell them, ‘Are you aware that you
expose your naked hands to people? You don’t know whether they have the HIV virus,
and it can easily be transmitted to you.’”

Pareyio was in New York recently to publicize the film. She described how she was
considered crazy when she began speaking out against FGM seven years ago. Her
husband left her after others said she was trying to spoil their culture, and she raised her
four children alone.

“In the beginning, it was tough,” Pareyio said. “My life was in danger, because I was
trying to break the silence about a culture that was deeply rooted among the people.
People believed in it and had never looked at it or even known the dangers, or wanted to
talk about it. So, it was like I was crazy, because I was talking about the private part of a
woman, which was a taboo in Africa. Nobody can even mention the part that I used to
mention when teaching them. But I insisted, because I knew having seen some
communities who don’t perform it, I knew that this was just another way of oppressing
our women.”

Now the subject is no longer taboo. “I’m happy now because at least everybody is talking
about it openly, compared to those days,” she says. “These days I go to the field, and say
‘Well, I’ve called you here because I want to talk about FGM.’ So, we are moving
towards stopping it.” Pareyio also invokes her Maasai culture in explaining why she does
not let herself become discouraged by the decades of struggle that she sees ahead. “When
you go to war, always be faithful [that you will succeed],” she says. “I have faith in me
that one day women in the Maasai community will be free from the cut."

Female genital mutilation

Female circumcision, officially known as female genital mutilation, is
one of the most political areas of women's health. Worldwide it is
estimated that well over 100 million women have been subjected to it.

Supporters of the practice say it is done for cultural and religious
reasons, but opponents say that not only is it potentially life-
threatening - it is also an extreme form of oppression of women.

Those who persist in the practice in Senegal will now face a prison
term of between one and five years.

Female circumcision is mainly carried out in western and southern
Asia, the Middle East and large areas of Africa.

It is also known to take place among immigrant communities in the
USA, Canada, France, Australia and Britain, where it is illegal.

In total it is estimated that two million a year are subjected to genital

There are three main types of circumcision:

• The removal of the tip of the clitoris;
• Total removal of the clitoris and surrounding labia;
• The removal of the clitoris and labia and the sewing up of the
vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual
blood - a process known as infibulation.

So drastic is the mutilation involved in the latter operation that young
brides have to be cut open to allow penetration on their wedding night
and are customarily sewn up afterwards.

The aim of the process is to ensure the woman is faithful to her future
husband. Some communities consider girls ineligible for marriage if
they have not been circumcised.

Girls as young as three undergo the process, but the age at which the
operation is performed varies according to country and culture.

Health workers say that the operation is often carried out in unsanitary
Razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives and even pieces of glass are
used, often on more than one girl, which increases the risk of infection.

Anaesthesia is rarely used.

Some girls die as a result of haemorraging, septicemia and shock.

It can also lead to long-term urinary and reproductive problems.

However, girls who have not been circumcised are considered
"unclean" in many cultures, and can be treated as harlots by other
women. Many men believe the folklore which says they will die if their
penis touches a clitoris.

Campaigns are working

Due to health campaigns, female circumcision has been falling in some
countries in the last decade. In Kenya, a 1991 survey found that 78%
of teenagers had been circumcised, compared to 100% of women over
50. In Sudan, the practice dropped by 10% between 1981 and 1990.

Several governments have introduced legislation to ensure the process
is only carried out in hospitals by trained doctors.

Other countries such as Egypt have banned the operation altogether,
but there is significant opposition to change because of the traditional
nature of the process and health workers think a less confrontational
approach, such as Ntanira Na Mugambo, could be more successful.

Ntanira Na Mugambo, also known as 'circumcision by words', has been
developed in rural areas of Kenya by local and international women's
health organisations.

It involves a week-long programme of community education about the
negative effects of female genital mutilation, culminating in a coming
of age ceremony for young women.

The young women are secluded for a week and undergo classes in
reproduction, anatomy, hygiene, respect for adults, developing self-
esteem and dealing with peer pressure.

Family members also undergo health education sessions and men in
the community are taught about the negative effects of female
Health workers believe the programme works because it does not
exert a blunt prohibition on female genital mutilation, but offers an
attractive alternative.