A Woman's Rite

By Van der Gaag, Nikki | New Internationalist, November 2004 | Go to article overview

A Woman's Rite


Van der Gaag, Nikki, New Internationalist


IT always happens on a Monday. On the Sunday, the drumming and dancing go on all night. All the women get dressed in their best and most brightly coloured clothes - purples, lime green, orange, yellow, sky blue - and they dance until they drop, even the grandmothers. They have been preparing for this for a week, pounding vast quantities of rice and groundnuts which is then cooked in an enormous silver pot with three legs. At six in the morning it all starts again, and then a procession wends its way out of the gate and along the road, one woman banging a black jerry can with a stick. The mother of one of the little girls, aged six, cradles her child's head gently on her lap and fans her against the heat. The baby and five girls are spoiled and feted, given new dresses. It is a cause for celebration, and for those who were the centre of attention last year, the first time that they are able to join in properly, to enter the circle of the initiated. A week later there will be another party when the children come home; more food, more dancing, more celebrations.

The mothers tell the children those who are old enough to enjoy stories - that where they are going there is a tree which has money instead of leaves. The girls dream of sending their father to Mecca, buying new clothes for themselves and all the family.

But at the heart of the party, as at the centre of all good stories, there is pain. For the little girls are going to be 'circumcised'. In her compound, where only the girls and their grandmothers are able to enter, the circumciser, ngaman, will take a razor, and cut off the children's' clitorises and labia minora with a razor.

Around 80 per cent of girls in the Gambia undergo this procedure. Seven of the nine major ethnic groups practise female genital mutilation (FGM) at ages from shortly after birth until 18 years old. Some girls die, others have complications following the operation. Many have difficult childbirths. Though this is also due to malnutrition and to early marriage - the majority of deaths are among women under 20 - the scarring of the vaginal area in FGM also makes it less able to stretch for the baby's head to come out. The maternal mortality rate in the Gambia is high, at 1,100 per 100,000 births - 107th out of 119 countries in the world - and has, if anything, gone up rather than down. In 1990 it was 1,050 per 100,000 births. Almost everyone you talk to has a sister, mother or other relative who died giving birth. Sometimes the child of a dead mother is called Malafi 'the one who was not wanted'.

But it is not difficult to see why mothers in the villages allow their female children to undergo the cutting, especially in the rural areas.

'My husband and I didn't want our daughters to be circumcised,' says one woman, 'but I knew they would be bullied and ostracized if they were not. I felt I had no choice. Everyone would know if they had not had it done, and if they came too near a compound where the circumcision was being performed, they could be brought in and circumcised then and there against their will.'

This is what happened to one girl from the Wolof tribe, who was taken forcibly off the street to be circumcised. As a result of the operation, she had to go to hospital. Her family, unusually, took the case to the police. …

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