The rite of female genital mutilation/cutting may be hard to end, but it is slowly happening in at least one corner of eastern Guinea, Guinée Forestière, in West Africa.
A programme of UNFPA and UNICEF on preventing FGM/C in Guinea is striving to stop the practice by raising public awareness about its harmful effects on young girls and women, who can suffer not only lasting psychological trauma but also anaemia, severe complications in childbirth, haemorrhaging and scarring. The practice can also interfere with the functioning of a marriage, particularly intimacy between husbands and wives.
This is where traditional communicators, often called griots, come into play. Enlisted to help in the awareness-raising by the United Nations joint programme through the National Network of Traditional Communicators (RENACOT), griots are trusted members of the community who give advice to families and local leaders, preside at weddings and resolve disputes. The network is a countrywide group of 20 members, many of whom are women.
One such member, Mama Delignouma Condé, is highlighted in a UNFPA/UNICEF report, “Using Tradition to Change Tradition,” which discusses the long-term sexual problems that can result from FGM/C. Mama Condé is asked to help resolve a problem in a new marriage in which the wife refuses to be intimate with her husband. Mama Condé, who underwent FGM/C herself when she was 10 years old, senses that the wife is afraid that sex will be painful, given her physical scars from cutting that was done when she was younger.
Effects on marriage
Up to 98 per cent of women in Guinea go through the ritual. Many young women who endure it sometimes have major complications in childbirth because they cannot have natural births and end up having Caesareans. A Caesarean can be dangerous in Guinea, where pregnant women in villages must travel miles to reach a medical facility while in labour.
Mama Condé spoke separately to the husband and to the wife who were having trouble, explaining the source of their problem. To the husband, Mama Condé said: “Your wife is afraid of sex because she was cut.”
To the wife, she soothed her by clarifying why she might be uncomfortable, adding: “You must not refuse your husband. Try again.”
With patience and effort on both sides, the couple agreed to work on the problem together. The two have remained married and are doing well, Mama Condé has learned, but the wife still has discomfort during intimacy. “They get used to it,” Mama Condé says. “It’s hard in the beginning, but after a while it’s all right.”
When a couple becomes estranged because of sexual matters, their families and the whole communities can suffer.
“If a woman’s frigidity prevents her from having an orgasm, the woman may perceive this as a lack of ability on the man’s part,” Lansana Condé, President of RENACOT, said in the report. (He is not related to Mama Condé.) The woman’s ability to have a sexual response is reduced by the cutting, but neither the wife nor the husband is aware that this can be the source of their troubles. That is where RENACOT and griots can intervene.
Even though men don’t feel comfortable talking about these things, they are encouraged to empathize with their wives’ condition and help them get over their difficulties. As Lansana Condé said, “We try to help him understand that sexuality is about love.”
Convincing the griots, too
In 2010, 60 traditional communicators from all over Guinea participated in a workshop supported by the UN joint programme, informing them in graphic terms of the effects of FGM/C and how the practice is damaging. The griots spread the information to their communities, often provided with bicycles to reach more places. As a result, RENACOT is now highly active in stopping FGM/C.
As for Mama Condé, her power of persuasion extended to gathering women in the village to talk about how cutting affects their overall health. She told them, “If you see couples who have sexual problems, remember that the best solution is not to cut girls in the first place, because that’s why these problems arise.”
Yet, not everyone was sure. Some skeptics thought that Mama Condé’s talks were part of a Western plot to change African ways. More discussions were held to clarify the difference between highly positive initiations into adulthood and the hurtful effects of surgery on young girls and women. Education of young girls on how to live in society and take care of their family was reinforced with the message that violence against women does not need to be part of that experience.
Sometimes, griots will step in if they find out a family is about to cut a daughter, reminding the community of the laws against the practice. A number of communities that had planned “camps” to perform the rite in a large ceremony abandoned the idea after listening to a griot’s talk. But traditions can die hard, with other griots continuing to favour the ritual or families taking their daughters into neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire to be cut. Girls are also being cut at younger ages, before 10, possibly because they are more docile or the parents think that the pain will be less since a younger body many not be as mature.
A travelling theatre, sponsored by RENACOT and the joint UN programme, presented a drama in the central Guinea town of Dabola. The show depicted a girl of 7 dying of blood loss after going through FGM/C. Public discussions followed with a parade through town. Similar events were held in seven other towns, and eventually 100 circumcisers put down their knives in an open event.
The UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme is planning a study in 2012 to measure the effects of the griots’ work in reducing FGM/C. Until then, they will keep up their efforts in Guinea.