Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Educating Against Female Circumcision in Africa

Ms. Funso Orenego, director of the Inter African Committee Nigeria
In 2009, I traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to conduct a medical site visit and met with Ms. Funso Orenego, Director of the Inter African Committee Nigeria. I was introduced through email to Ms. Orenego by Dr. Shahid Aziz of Smile Bangladesh. Dr. Aziz had considered taking a team to Nigeria to perform cleft lip and palate surgery on children. My job was to review several hospitals, meet with the health minister and various hospital administrators and present a report. 

I asked Ms. Orenego about the work of her organization and was informed that she and several social workers traveled to rural villages throughout the country teaching traditional birth attendants better and more hygienic delivery methods. They also taught against female circumcision - the removal of all or part of the clitoris - also called female genital mutilation (FGM).

I was familiar with the practice. Last week, as I do every semester at Western Connecticut State University in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, I screened the documentary Shackled Women: Abuses of a Patriarchal World. This short film illustrates the harm done to women in societies where men dominant social, religious and financial institutions. In Bangladesh and India this can lead to female infanticide and 'bride burnings' over dowry demands. In the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan and Iran, movement of women is curtailed in public through gender segregation, veiling and other interpretations of hijab. While some may find this good moral behavior, other women feel their intellect as well as their actions are stifled. In Western nations, gender violence includes the trafficking of young girls and women for sex. They are often kept in virtual slavery, physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their captors. Finally, in 28 African nations, Muslims and Christians alike practice FGM to mark a girl's transition into womanhood. It is the fate of about 6,000 women and girls everyday.

In Shackled Women, a baby girl in Togo, West Africa of about 2 years of age is brought to a midwife for a demonstration of FGM. The baby is stripped of her clothing and her legs are held apart by a group of village women. The midwife is seen gesticulating to the group with a razor blade while the baby girl's screams pierce the soundtrack. At this point the students are usually covering their eyes and looking in horror and whispering, "She's not really going to do that?!" Yes, it is one thing to read about FGM in the textbook,  quite another to anticipate watching the procedure unfold while the 'victim' struggles to get free. Just as the midwife is about to make the cut, she moves in front of the baby and blocks the 'surgery' from the viewers gaze. Afterward, the women cheer and clap.

In interviews the women claim, "the clitoris is always removed like that, if not the girl will be abused by other women." Some believe an uncircumcised woman's baby will die during delivery. They explain "you must trick the girl on the day of her circumcision in order to get her the place of excision." Men think they will lose control and power over women or that their wives will want too much sex if they are not circumcised. A girl has no alternative to the practice if she hopes to survive as she will be shunned and remain unmarried unless she completes this rite of passage.

In Nigeria, the age at which a woman was circumcised and the type of circumcision varied around the country. According to Ms. Orenego, some girls had the procedure done as infants, some at the time of marriage, others right before the birth of a child.
Instruments used in FGM
Instruments used in FGM
Educating woman against FGM was tough going: sometimes village leaders literally ran Ms. Orenego out of town. Uncircumcised girls and older women were afraid to meet and be seen with Ms. Orenego. Since most women did not know what a person looked like with a clitoris and were unfamiliar with all of the health complications of FGM, Ms. Orenego and her team took on their journeys a model of a woman's lower body with removable vaginae. One of the removable pieces showed a vagina stitched closed after circumcision. Another depicted a baby's head emerging from the vaginal opening with an artificial pool of blood that fitted beneath.  These kinds of teaching tools are necessary when your audience, not just women but men too, has high levels of illiteracy.

I had seen these educational tools in V-Day: Until the Violence Stops by playwright and activist Eve Ensler. In that film, a woman in East Africa also traveled on foot through rural areas, village-to-village, carrying the very same models. In addition, Ms. Orenego had a collection of  'instruments' that she collected from her travels to the villages that were used in FGM, pictured here. They looked medieval. Yes, they were blunt, rough and stained. Wrapped in newspaper and old cloth, they hardly seemed sharp enough to cut butter nor capable of sterilization with the rust and nicks visible on the blades.

I learned through our conversations that Ms. Orenego had attended a certificate program at the Center for International Community Health Studies (CICHS) at the University of Connecticut  in 1993. That year I was in graduate school at UConn studying medical anthropology and working on a grant administrated by CICHS regarding maternal/child health programs in Danbury, Connecticut. When Ms. Orenego pulled out her binder containing all of her classroom instruction materials, there was the name of the instructor/adviser we shared on the title page. At that time, I remember viewing photos of a group of recent graduates from Africa of the CICHS program in their offices in Farmington. Maybe Ms. Orenego and I had passed each other in those hallways one day. What an interesting little coincidence.
Today, each in our own way, Ms. Orenego and I are educating women and men about the health dangers of FGM. Her work can have immediate impact. But, one never knows whether or not the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, capable of making policies that address this and other human rights issues. Meanwhile, a shout out to all of those who, like Ms. Funso Orenego, are working on the ground and in the field to eliminate the practice of FGM.

No comments:

Post a Comment