Monday, July 27, 2015

Dispelling the Myths

 The white businessman joked: “The campaign to stop Female Genital Mutilation is a fight to Save the Clitoris!”

I was horrified and struck dumb! I wanted to retort: “Well it’s not really about saving a body part. We are fighting to save little girls from the horrendous trauma of being deliberately maimed which causes them to suffer for the rest of their lives.”

Girls who are “circumcised” at a young age – they can be defenceless babies or toddlers or sweet fun-loving kids of seven or eight – suffer shock, massive blood loss and infection that can kill them. If they survive the assault they suffer on a daily basis - every time they wee is painful and later they suffer agony with every menstrual period.

When a girl is married off, the husband forces himself on his “pure, virginal bride” and sex is an agonising ordeal for her. Pain during intercourse continues for life. 

Normal childbirth is painful enough, but for a circumcised woman childbirth is excruciating and risks multiple complications for the baby and mother; one being the appalling condition of obstetric fistula when the vaginal wall is torn and the woman is forced to live with leakage, causing shame and ostracism. 

In her latest book, Saving Safa, leading anti-FGM activist, Waris Dirie writes about her meeting with paediatrician Dr Emma Acina who treats countless victims of FGM in her clinic in Djibouti.

Dr Acina says: “You can’t imagine the awful injuries I see here every day: little girls with chronic inflammation of the vagina, bladder and kidneys; girls with tumours the size of tennis balls growing on scar tissue that just keeps spreading; young women unable to pass urine and others whose mutilation has made them incontinent; young children who can’t get a wink of sleep because of the pain.“

The white woman quipped: “If you go to Africa to try to stop FGM you won’t be popular with the men!”

Again I was shocked and struck dumb and floundered in my response. I wanted to express my indignation. “Don’t you know anything about FGM! How could you trivialise this outrageous crime against innocent children! My motivation to campaign against FGM is not about my popularity!

However her uninformed comment got me thinking about the male perspective. Wouldn’t a husband want a healthy, happy wife – a woman who had not had her vagina mutilated – who could enjoy making love and experiencing orgasm and sharing the pleasure of sex as part of a loving, equal, respectful relationship? Aren’t there benefits for men too in saving women from this atrocity? Loving sex should not be enmeshed with pain, female submission and male dominance.

Some white academics theorise, ensconced in their ivory towers, that white “outsiders” should not meddle with the customs of other cultures.

This attitude makes me so furious I can barely speak. I want to say to these academics: “What if a culture had the custom to cut off a child’s arm – to deliberately maim the child for life? Would we standby and accept it as their right to practise a custom? Or we would consider cutting off children’s arms a shocking crime to be stopped at all costs?

The passive attitude of acceptance is the stance of the Enabler on the Abuse Triangle; turning a blind eye to the Perpetrator’s abuse of the Victim. 

Slicing off girls’ genitals against their will is not some eccentric custom like ear piercing or body tattoos, which are personal choices and mostly harmless.

FGM is a violent crime, extreme child abuse and a human rights violation that goes beyond a cultural custom. This atrocity is a global issue that demands “outside” intervention to protect innocent children in the same way international charities intervene in suffering countries with humanitarian aid.

The point is, the international community should not tolerate the harmful practices of insular cultures. When anyone breaks the law and commits what widespread humanity considers a crime (doing harm to another human being) we need Zero Tolerance.

We need top-down legislation that views FGM as a crime and condemns the custom, with legal consequences for perpetrators; the old women welding rusty razor blades and their accomplices who drag little girls from their beds into secret places to hold them down while 'the cutter' hacks away at tender flesh and then closes the wound with thorns.

To stop these acts of unimaginable cruelty, we also need a dynamic “bottom-up” widespread education movement that works in villages at the grassroots level to challenge and change the “social norms” that keep the practice going from one generation to the next.

We need intervention to break the generational cycle so that the trauma inflicted on the grandmother and mother is not inflicted on the daughter because cutting has been “normalised” as something we have always done (as if tradition imbues abuse with dignity and merit.)

However the way “outside help” is given is important; not in a patronising, superior, forceful way but in an equal, respectful collaborative partnership, where white women join with their black sisters, united as women (regardless of colour) and as human beings (regardless of nationalities and cultures) offering the benefits of the knowledge, skills and resources we have to share to empower girls and women.

“Outsiders” from the developed world need to work alongside women in other cultures, in a respectful collaboration as equal partners in the cause, not in a rescuing and patronising way, to create deep and lasting cultural change. We need to change a collective mind set, not easy but possible.

Superstitions such as the belief that circumcision makes a girl clean, chaste and marriageable need to be challenged by rationality and education about female anatomy and the permanent damage to physical and mental health caused by FGM. We need to educate about human rights and gender politics so families and communities learn to trust and respect their womenfolk and not attempt to control them out of shame of sexuality and fear of female empowerment.

Outsiders like me who are passionate about this cause want to empower women and men and children in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and other countries where this atrocity is carried out against 8000 innocent girls every day; that’s three million a year; 30 million victims in the next ten years if we do not intervene to break the generational cycle.

According to UNICEF 150 million girls and women worldwide are living with the terrible effects of FGM. We want to stop this shocking statistic from increasing. We want to end FGM and consign it to the horrors of history.

The atrocity is embedded in the concrete of poverty. Charities, NGOs and governments must assist communities to break free from the injustice of poverty – to partner in food growing, supplying clean water and sanitation, decent housing, school for kids, jobs for men and women and medical facilities – the basics of life we all deserve – for villages across Africa and other countries.

It can never be acceptable to maim little girls so they are considered “clean” to fetch a good “bride price” from husbands. The enticement of a bride payment for their daughters should never be the way to ease the burden of crushing poverty.

What really enrages me is that this lifelong disability is caused deliberately.
Parents everywhere experience a heart breaking tragedy when their baby is born with an illness or disability and can blame the unfairness of fate.
However when a child is deliberately maimed for life how can we comfort ourselves? Such a disability can be prevented. And it’s up to you and me to be outraged and fired up to save innocent children from such indefensible cruelty.

Today I sponsored one little girl and her family through the Desert Flower Foundation to save her from FGM and transform her life. That’s one less victim, a drop in the ocean of suffering. However if we all saved one little girl...well...imagine…we could dry up that blood red ocean of suffering forever.

Read Waris Dirie’s heart-wrenching books, Desert Flower, Desert Dawn, Desert Children and Saving Safa and see her triumphant film, Desert Flower.


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