Taking on the Ancestors
Molloy, Aimee, Newsweek
Byline: Aimee Molloy
Molly Melching's quest to end female genital cutting, one village at a time.
Malicounda Bambara, August 1996. Kerthio Diawara sat on a stiff plastic chair, flipping through the notebook on her lap and trying her best to avoid eye contact with the other students. Usually the atmosphere inside the classroom was lively and animated but on this day, the room was filled with an unfamiliar and icy silence as Kerthio and the other thirty-four women listened uneasily to Ndey, the Tostan class facilitator, who spoke from her place in the circle. None of them could believe what Ndey was doing: speaking aloud about the custom of cutting a girl's genitals to prepare her for marriage--so old and revered a custom, it was known among themselves simply as "the tradition."
Kerthio stole a glance around the room at the others and saw that most were keeping their eyes to themselves. Surely they too were nervously trying to make sense of what Ndey was saying, explaining that the tradition could cause a wide range of serious medical problems, such as hemorrhaging, infection, difficulty urinating, stress or shock, and complications during childbirth. While most of the women in the room had known girls or women who had suffered from one or more of these problems, or had suffered them personally, they never would have connected this with the tradition. Rather, everyone believed that problems after the procedure were the work of evil spirits, a punishment for some unknown transgression of the family or cutter. The consequences of talking about the tradition could be quite serious. It could mean mental illness or paralysis. It might even bring death.
"What I'm about to read is a statement from the World Health Organization," Ndey said. "Female Genital Mutilation is an act of violence toward the young girl that will affect her life as an adult." She paused. "Would anybody like to share their thoughts about this?"
The room was silent.
"Let's talk about why girls are cut," Ndey said. "What consequences befall a girl who is not cut?"
Why were girls cut? It was a silly question, like asking why one breathes. Every woman in the room knew that the tradition was among the most momentous events of a girl's life, preparing her to become a woman, to eventually be deemed acceptable for marriage, and, most important of all, to fully belong and have a respected role within her society. For a girl not to be cut--to be a bilakoro, a name considered among the worst insults in their culture--was unimaginable. Not only would a bilakoro have trouble finding a husband, she would also be rejected and ostracized by the rest of the community, by women especially. Considered impure and unfit to enter the circle of "real women," the food she cooked would not be eaten, the clothes she washed rewashed by others.
Takko, the village midwife and a mother of three, hesitantly raised her hand.
"I know this is an uncomfortable topic for many of us here," she began, "but all last night I thought very seriously about this. We never talk about the tradition, but maybe it's time." Takko went on to describe
the problems with childbirth she'd witnessed in her work as a midwife, and how difficult it was for the doctor to sew up scar tissue, therefore requiring more time for a woman to heal. She had long suspected that women who could not have children may have suffered infections following the cutting, causing their infertility. "What Ndey is telling us is true. This is not a healthy practice."
Takko sat down, her heart racing. She was unsure of how the other women would respond, and she felt the swelling rush of relief when her friend Aminata finally spoke. "As you know, I'm a Toucouleur," Aminata said, referring to the predominant ethnic group from the north of Senegal, "and according to my customs I was cut as an infant and sealed shut afterward." Aminata's mother had arranged for her to be married at fifteen. …