Africans organize to end the widespread practice of Female Genital Mutilation

by Abu-Jahlil Astrid Chacha

In one of his last moves as president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan outlawed female genital mutilation in May 2015, continuing a trend in nations across Africa, spurred by protests like this.

Feb. 6 is the international day for the abolition of all kinds of female genital mutilation and cutting. The practice of FGM/C in Africa and the Middle East is a thousand-year-old tradition consisting in cutting the clitoris of baby girls, teenagers and women with a razor blade or an ugly special knife.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has been conducting investigations over the last 20 years and first published its results in 2013. In February 2016, the organization produced a second report. Based on 300 indicators applied in more than 100 countries, UNICEF generated one of the largest sources of statistics on women and children worldwide. It can be found at

Feb. 6 is the international day for the abolition of all kinds of female genital mutilation and cutting.

The latest updated report by UNICEF in September 2016 is bloody and horrible. While the exact number of girls and women worldwide who have undergone FGM/C remains unknown, at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have been subjected to the practice. Of these 200 million, more than half live in just three countries: Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Forty-four million are girls below age 15.

The percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 years old who underwent FGM/C in 1985 was 51 percent, 49 percent in 1990, 48 percent in 1995, 46 percent in 2000, 44 percent in 2005, 41 percent in 2010 and 37 percent last percentage in 2016. It is remarkable that these last three decades, there has been an overall decline in the prevalence of FGM/C. But it remains insufficient considering the increasing population.

Female genital mutilation is performed on a baby girl.

From 2004 to 2015, the percentage of victims aged 15 to 49 years old was 98 percent in Somalia, Guinea 97 percent, Djibouti 93 percent, Sierra Leone 90 percent, Mali 89 percent, Egypt and Sudan 87 percent, Eritrea 83 percent, Burkina-Faso 76 percent, Gambia 75 percent, Ethiopia 74 percent, Mauritania 69 percent, Liberia 50 percent, Guinea-Bissau 45 percent, Chad 44 percent, Côte d’Ivoire 38 percent, Nigeria and Senegal 25 percent, Central African Republic 24 percent, Kenya 21 percent, Yemen 19 percent, United Republic of Tanzania 15 percent, Benin 9 percent, Iraq 8 percent, Togo 5 percent, Ghana 4 percent, Niger 2 percent, Uganda and Cameroon 1 percent.

From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of victims aged 0 to 15 years old was 56 percent in Gambia, Mauritania 54 percent, Indonesia 49 percent, Guinea 46 percent, Eritrea 33 percent, Sudan 32 percent, Guinea-Bissau 30 percent, Ethiopia 24 percent, Nigeria 17 percent, Yemen 15 percent, Egypt 14 percent, Burkina-Faso, Sierra Leone and Senegal 13 percent, Côte d’Ivoire 10 percent, Kenya 3 percent, Uganda, Central African Republic and Ghana 1 percent, Togo 0.3 percent and Benin 0.2 percent.

In most of the countries, the majority of girls were cut before age 5. In Yemen, 85 per cent of girls were cut within their first week of life. While in nearly all countries, FGM/C is usually executed by traditional practitioners, more than half of girls in Indonesia underwent it by a trained medical professional.

Only 30 countries have a national database on FGM/C. Some countries have no statistics even though the practice is current.

Victims’ testimonies

Victims don’t talk easily about their experience to the media. They fear they’ll be abandoned by their family or censured by their community. But when the victims are motivated and supported by activist associations against FGM/C, they agree to speak out on film or audio.

Victims who flee to Europe and receive care from anti-FGM/C campaign supporters often expose the excision reality occurring in their countries. Many clearly describe the drama, relating it like a nightmare. Some, however, still refuse or avoid remembering it.

Djenabou Teliwel Diallo, aged 26, a victim from Guinea, revealed her case to the UNHCR refugee agency: “I have a painful memory of my excision. It was done by my grandmother with my mother’s complicity. One day, my mother decided to have me excised. She took me somewhere. I met other girls, some friends and girls from the neighboring village.

“They told me I was going to become a woman. It was a big day. I didn’t know anything about excision. I was feeling happy inside. I did not know the consequences and pain of excision.

“We were maybe one hundred girls. Everyone was waiting her turn. I could hear the cries of the girl before me. I was frozen. I could not run because it would be a dishonor for my family. I was wondering whether I should run away or stay, but I didn’t have the choice.

“I heard the girls crying. My turn came. It was atrocious. Four women caught me, put me down, opened my sex and cut me. I cried out loudly. I feel that since that day, something is broken in my soul that could never be replaced. I think they steal women’s sexuality.”

These are the sort of instruments used in FGM/C.

In her country, Teliwel became a prosecuted anti-FGM/C activist. “I was twice a victim of excision. It revolted me. Everyone in Guinea hated me because I stood up against excision. As my life was in danger, I left my country and sought refuge in Brussels.

“When I was 15 in Guinea in my grandmother’s village, she wanted to verify if I had been properly excised. She checked me and said nothing. But the following day, she ordered me to go back to her friend’s house to redo the excision. According to her, it hadn’t been done properly and the work needed to be finished.

“I wanted to oppose her, but she convinced me by telling me that I would never find a husband, would never have children, would be abandoned by my family and friends. So we went back to her friend’s home to remove what was left.

“Unfortunately, they cut a vein. I bled a lot, lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital. For me, I was dead. I hated my mother and my grandmother. When a young girl has a problem in her life, she naturally turns to her mother. When it is a mother herself who allows such things, then the girl doesn’t know whom to turn to.

“You must know that it is not acceptable to talk openly about sex in Guinea. For the people, excision is a tradition. The fact that I spoke openly about it was offensive and unacceptable. It is impossible for a girl to bring a complaint against her own mother and grandmother. I represent the silent majority.

“I was twice a victim of excision. It revolted me. Everyone in Guinea hated me because I stood up against excision. As my life was in danger, I left my country and sought refuge in Brussels.”

“For the moment, I am in Belgium, where I am recognized as a refugee. I work for a NGO in solidarity with my former NGO in Guinea. We are not sure of the results, but we do our best. To me, it’s barbarism, a harmful tradition which has no place in our society.

“Some people say it is in the Koran. That is wrong. We checked it. It is nowhere in the Koran. Many argue that it is for the cleanliness of the girl’s body. For traditionalists, she is not clean if she has not been excised. Some say it is a form of respect for your husband. A man sleeping with a woman who was not excised or badly excised risks impotency, or, during childbirth, it is said that the baby could die if its head touches the mother’s clitoris if it was not excised.

“I think it will take very long time to put an end to excision. The traditional chiefs and elders and the police disagree with me about my activism. For the elders, telling young girls to refuse to be cut was an offense to tradition. They filed a lawsuit against me.

“Police told me to choose between stopping my campaign or going to prison. Police don’t go against tradition, they said. In the city, I was denied access to the market and to the mosque, and I was beaten everywhere.

“People threatened to kill me. I went to complain at the police station, but the policemen were clear: ‘Madam, we can’t help you. We already warned you to stop your activism but you continued. We can’t protect you; you have to protect yourself.’ So I decided to move because if police can’t protect me, my life is in danger. I left the country.

“Our struggle is progressing, but there is a great deal of work to be done. I would like the women seeking asylum in Belgium to be seriously considered.

“There are on average 20,000 women and girls seeking asylum every year in the European Union,” according to Fadela Novrak, a UNHCR policy officer.

Victims don’t talk easily about their experience to the media. They fear they’ll be abandoned by their family or censured by their community. But when the victims are motivated and supported by activist associations against FGM/C, they agree to speak out on film or audio.

Diaryatou Bah, aged 31, a victim from Guinea, said: “My testimony is considered an offense by my family and by traditionalists, but they are ignorant. Some tell me that I’m a lesbian paid by white men to insult our culture. It’s my mission to free their mind. I would like to teach young girls the freedom of choice because there, the word ‘choice’ doesn’t exist. Excision will still continue and it won’t stop if we don’t break with tradition.”

The struggle for the total abolition of FGM/C is progressing

UNICEF is leading a worldwide campaign. In Mauritania, Mali and Egypt, Muslim leaders decided to advocate ending FGM/C during their sermons in the mosques. They testify that in the Koran, there is no reference requiring or even allowing FGM/C.

Thirteen African countries have passed laws making FGM/C a crime, a violation of basic childhood and human rights or a transgression against physical integrity, allowing authorities to imprison violators for five to 20 years and impose high fines. According to “Accelerating Change: By the Numbers,” a report from UNICEF and UNFPA, the U.N. Population Fund, in 2016, more than 3,000 communities, comprising nearly 8.5 million people, made public declarations of abandonment of FGM/C.

At a conference in Addis Ababa on Oct. 17, 2017, Pan African Parliament President Roger Nkodo Dang called on members of the PAP to be champions of FGM elimination in their countries. “Following this conference, we expect commitment from the PAP members to engage males to address gender inequalities and harmful practices such as FGM in their respective countries, due to decision-making powers they hold,” he said. President Dang also urged the adoption and enforcement of appropriate laws which some African countries practicing FGM still lack. Around the world, 60 countries have adopted national laws penalizing FGM practices.

In Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda, some FGM practitioners have been sent to trial and jailed. In Togo, Intact, a German non-government organization, is helping communities to abandon FGM/C. Gambia’s Parliament has passed a new law against this practice. Somalia is doing the same. The National Council for Women and Children in Egypt is active. In Guinea, many FGM/C specialists gave up their blade. Pan-African Parliament members are committed to eliminate this practice.

In 20 African countries, the practice remains current. But UNICEF reports that regarding the 15-to-19-year-old victims, the rate fell by 41 percent in Liberia, 31 percent in Burkina Faso, 30 percent in Kenya and 27 percent in Egypt during the last three decades. In Senegal, more than 5,000 villages abandoned FGM/C.

The genital cut is like a status symbol protected by many communities’ elders who never debate the issue publicly or even in private. In Guinea, Muslim leaders defend FGM in the hospitals. But in Sierra Leone and Chad, men are more motivated than women to abolish it.

Josephine Kulea of the Samburu Girls Foundation celebrates the opening of their school. The foundation has saved over 1,000 girls from FGM/C. Josephine’s favorite quote is: “When you educate a man, you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

In France and Belgium, GAMS (Action Group Against Sexual Mutilation) is a very active association working in Africa too. A Kenyan woman, Josephine Kulea, is engaged with activist groups in Kenya to stop this violence.

Many famous artists in Africa are involved in the campaign, including Inna Modja of Mali, herself a victim, Tiken Jah Fakoly of Côte d’Ivoire, Coumba Gawlo of Senegal, Fatou Mandiang Diatta – Sister Fa – of Senegal, herself a victim, and Congolese rapper Maitre Gims. Today, the risk that girls and women will be cut is not so great as it was for their mothers.

In July 2017, the movement Excision Parlons-en (Let’s Talk Freely About FGM/C) led a campaign in France to warn young girls going back to Guinea for school holidays to be prudent because the risk of being cut is higher during this period. In 2018, Excision Parlons-en will conduct a pan-African campaign.

FGM/C can kill the victim or can cause psychological trauma and depression. Victims can feel a lack sexual desire. Many victims say they feel intense pain during sexual intercourse. When victims become pregnant, they face hard and painful deliveries and are more likely to hemorrhage and have pregnancy complications. Other common health consequences are infections, cysts and infertility. Mutilation is also responsible for spreading HIV because the instruments used are not prepared according to medical standards.

There are four types of female genital cutting: 1) clitoridectomy: partial or total ablation of the clitoris; 2) excision: partial or total ablation of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without the labia majora; 3) infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal orifice by ablation and joining of labia minora or labia majora, with or without ablation of the clitoris; 4) unclassified forms: all other forms of mutilation. UNICEF’s aim is to totally eliminate FGM/C by 2030.

Abu-Jahlil Astrid Chacha, a freelance journalist and columnist based in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, can be reached at To learn more about FGM/C, visit