TIME MAGAZINE, December 3, 2001.



The Last Rites

For centuries women have suffered in traditional African circumcision rituals. Now women's movements are trying to stop these dangerous ceremonies


Monday, Nov. 26, 2001
Massita, 61, takes a piece of old cloth from her battered white purse, unfolds it and gingerly lays out seven miniature knives. The crude blades are nicked, the wooden handles worn. An older woman sitting next to her leans over and taps the knives twice with the fingers of her right hand, then touches her forehead. This is to avoid eye problems after looking at the knives, she says. Massita picks up one knife and explains how it is used to remove the clitorises of young women. Her mother did the same job before her, she says. And her grandmother. "These are the very knives they used."

The World Health Organization estimates more than 100 million women worldwide have been circumcised - that is, had part or all of their clitoris, labia or vulva cut out. The practice, now commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM), is most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Horn of Africa, where up to 98% of girls are circumcised, and in Islamic populations in the continent's west. It is also found in Christian countries like Ethiopia and Kenya.

"It doesn't matter whether it's Christian, Muslim or whatever," says Zipporah Kittony, a Kenyan M.P. and chairman of the Kenyan women's lobby group Maendeleo Ya Wanawake (Progress for Women). "It's cultural and it's commonplace."

But attitudes toward FGM are slowly changing. In a quiet revolution, African women are beginning to speak out against the practice. Media campaigns linking such rituals to difficulties in pregnancy and AIDS have slowed the custom, especially in urban areas. The growing number of educated women has helped too.

In the countryside, success is coming not by abolishing coming-of-age rites altogether but by recognizing their importance and replacing the cutting with alternative rituals. "In some tribes you cannot become a mature woman unless you have come through the ritual," says Kittony, whose group has used alternative rites to reduce the incidence of FGM in some parts of Kenya by up to 15%. "So we teach these women to be role models rather than circumcisers. They teach the girls maturity, they counsel them."

An alternative rite of passage, which in one Kenyan language is known as circumcision through words, commonly involves a period of seclusion for the girls. Elder women teach them health issues including the dangers of aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. Sometimes a group of girls is taken to a local school or hall and shown films about the dangers of FGM. The week often ends with a party. "We are not against people's customs, we are against the cutting," says Traoré Dosso Mariam, secretary-general of the Ivorian Association for the Defence of Women's Rights, which encourages alternative rituals.

The idea is spreading. Last year more than 100 former circumcisers from across Africa grouped together and agreed to put down their knives and razor blades for good. Now they instruct rural women on health and childbirth. "We teach [the circumcisers] a trade that responds to their economic needs," Gambian Fatou Waggeh, an anti-FGM campaigner who was circumcised at 15 and is now 32, told a Rome conference in March. "[We] recognize that we must provide them with alternatives for training and [keeping their] power within the community."

Pressure for change is also coming from governments. At least eight sub- Saharan African nations including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Senegal have passed legislation or announced presidential decrees banning FGM. Africa's courts are also getting tougher. In a historic ruling last December, a Kenyan court issued an order preventing a father from forcing his daughters, aged 15 and 17, to undergo circumcision. Women's groups across Africa applauded the ruling.

"You can talk to these women all you want about the human-rights side of it, or the danger to the girls. But it's the threat of being arrested that has an effect," says Drissa Koné, a 29-year-old community health worker in northern Ivory Coast. "Let one woman in this region be arrested for performing excisions, and watch how fast they stop doing it."

Still, prosecutions remain rare. And unless laws are strictly enforced they may even do more harm than good. In some places the threat of punishment has pushed the practice underground, leading to an increased possibility of botched operations. In Odienné, northwestern Ivory Coast, festivities surrounding the excision ritual are now modest affairs. "People used to hold great fêtes," says Mabana Touré, 37. "Streets were blocked off, there was music and the girls would run around town all made-up and dressed in special clothes. Now, we might have a special meal together in the house - something much more discreet, because people are scared."

Elsewhere, elders continue to encourage circumcisions because the custom provides an important social and economic role. Families in the Sabaot tribe in Kenya, for instance, receive cows upon the circumcision of their first girl. And alternative ceremonies can cause problems of their own. Julie Maranya, coordinator of a Kenyan anti-fgm group, says that because young girls are being taught sex education as part of their alternative initiation, "they think they are now free to engage in pre-marital sex. That's why we have made many tiny mothers."

But as it slowly becomes more common for young women to shun circumcision, the heavy stigma of being "uncut" is fading. Ivorian Banassiri Sylla, 34, recalls the day 26 years ago when she was to be circumcised. "I remember the blade. How it shone! There was a woman kneeling over me with the knife. I bit her; it was all I could do. Then three women came to hold me down. One of them sat on my chest. I bit her with all my might." The women finally let Sylla go, but her uncut status was a mark of shame for her family. "Never, ever would I do this to my daughters," she says. "It strips a woman of her very womanhood."

Even circumciser Massita realizes the changing times. None of her daughters has shown an interest in taking up the family trade. When she dies, she says, she will have her knives buried with her.

With reporting by WANJA GITHINJI/Nairobi and NANCY PALUS/Odienné

Cite as:
(File prepared 2 December 2001)