Village by Village, Circumcising a Ritual
The Washington Post June 07, 1998, Sunday, Final Edition SECTION: OUTLOOK; Pg. C01
Aissa Tou Sarr thought she would never see the dreaded moment. Then late last year, from a far-off village, came an old Muslim priest. He had walked for days in his rubber thongs and white robe to urge the community to stop Sarr from doing her life's work: cutting out the genitals of young girls.
"In the beginning, people were shocked, and shouted in anger," said Sarr. "This was our tradition! Some walked out of the meeting."
Sarr was about to get caught up in a small revolution that has gusted through rural Senegal like a hot dust storm. In the past year, village after village has declared an end to female circumcision, a practice that has existed in parts of Africa since the pharaohs.
Sarr, in her fifties, had been the ritual circumciser for the village for decades, using a razor blade to perform the procedure on about 200 girls every rainy season. She learned the trade from her grandmother, who had circumcised her at 15 and, in turn, had excised the genitals of her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters.
Initially, Sarr feared she would not have the emotional resilence to do the job. Not everyone, she said, has the stamina to do it. Not only is she proud of her skill, it has provided her with a decent living: about $ 8.60, lunch and a bar of soap for each operation. "I couldn't stop thinking, 'How am I going to take care of my family? What am I going to do?' " she said.
After weeks of bitter argument, the villagers gathered in February and vowed never again to circumcise their girls. Kept alive through wars, migration and slavery, a centuries-old tradition was abolished within minutes. And Sarr, who now depends on her brothers' charity, resigned herself to near- destitution.
Sarr's hardship is just one of the consequences of this quiet rebellion. Since last July, 29 Senegalese communities have declared an end to female circumcision, and begun pressing others to join them. In the process, their leaders have become local legends -- even Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed them during her visit here in April.
In recent years, Americans have joined an international campaign to end female genital mutilation, as the opponents call the custom, in which a girl's clitoris, and sometimes the inner and outer vaginal lips, are removed. The State Department granted asylum last year to a woman from Togo, now living in Alexandria, who had fled her home rather than undergo circumcision.
About 130 million African women in about 28 countries are circumcised, and thousands die each year as a result, in childbirth, or from infections and hemorrhaging, according to the World Health Organization. Yet until now, Western exhortations have had little effect in Africa. In fact, they have often been met with defensive hostility by millions who believe the tradition is required not only by Islam, but for hygiene and sexual prudence, too.
Traveling around Senegal, one still hears the traditionalists recite old convictions identical to those heard across Africa: that the clitoris smells bad, that it's unclean and grows too large for women to walk comfortably, and that uncircumcised girls are likely to get pregnant before marriage.
But now, in this small West African country, with barely 8 million people, one education program is having some success, highlighting how other Western campaigns might have gone awry. In remote areas with neither electricity nor paved roads, the villagers here have achieved what years of pleading from international agencies, health officials -- and, more recently, a few African governments -- have failed to accomplish.
Ending female circumcision wasn't on the agenda 10 years ago, when Molly Melching, an American, founded an organization called Tostan ("Breakthrough"). Melching, who came to Senegal in 1975 as an exchange student from the University of Illinois and never left, designed an intensive literacy and skills training program for women, built around group discussions. Funded largely by UNICEF, she hired villagers to teach the classes and published workbooks in local languages.
Rather than confront issues like circumcision directly, Tostan took several months before broaching the subject of women's health. Even then, Melching said: "We never spoke about sexuality. We only spoke about health, and rights." Villagers say months of discussing infections, childbirth and sexual pain inevitably led them to question circumcision.
Melching said she's learned from some critical mistakes made by international organizations and Western feminists.
She believes that making a political issue of female circumcision, or declaring it a barbaric act, does not convince many Africans. "These women really love their children," said Melching, adding that many Africans counter Western indignation by likening the pain of circumcision to Western women suffering face-lifts and anorexia. Although Melching stresses human-rights violations, the health risks are what really hit home. "That's something everyone gets," she said. "Without health, they can't do anything."
Too often, Melching said, Western organizations hope to persuade individuals to abandon female circumcision without understanding that such independence could leave an African woman with no marriage prospects and expose her family to scorn or ostracism. Demba Diawara, the imam, or priest, who arrived in Diabougou to plead the case against circumcision, said: "Even if you learn something is bad, if it's your tradition, you can't just get up and stop it."
But by getting entire villages to sign on to the plan, no one carries a stigma. Indeed, Tostan's experience shows the movement gains momentum as news of the villagers' decision spreads across the country.
Yet, even within villages that have vowed to stop circumcision, it has been a struggle. In Malicounda, a village of 3,000 located 55 miles southeast of the capital, Dakar, women argued bitterly with men, who feared that their public renunciation of circumcision would deeply embarrass them.
"We would not back down," said Maimouna Troare, 60, an imposingly tall woman who heads Malicounda's women's organization. "We told them we would continue talking against female circumcision." She advised the village men that "when the drumbeat changes, the dance has to change, too."
In most operations, crude instruments are used without anesthetic. If the vaginal walls are removed, the opening is often sealed, save for a small hole for urine and blood. On wedding nights, circumcisers are then summoned to reopen virgin brides for their husbands. And yet, until recently, a mix of secrecy, discretion and shame kept women from linking health problems to circumcision.
Until now, the peer pressure supporting circumcision has usually been too intense for individuals to resist. In Diawara's village, Ker Simbara, about 60 miles from Dakar, a woman named Dousu Konate says her adopted daughter begged her for months to let her undergo the operation.
"The girls mocked her. The boys said, 'You'll never find a husband.' " The girl was married last year at 15, shortly after being circumcised and just before the village scrapped the practice.
The people of Ker Simbara needed agreement from their clansmen scattered far across the area, both to allay their possible fury and to ensure that girls could still find husbands.
So Diawara walked for three months in the blistering heat, from village to village. The fact that he was an older man, and religious, helped sway the other imams, whose consent was crucial -- 90 percent of Senegalese are Muslim. "We went back and forth, until everyone agreed," said Diawara, who recently learned to read and write in Tostan's classes.
This grass-roots movement has provided protection for politicians. One month after Malicounda's decision was reported in Senegal, President Abdou Diouf made his first-ever declaration against circumcision (after 32 years in power) and is now pushing to make it a crime, punishable by six years in jail. (On Wednesday, the government of Ivory Coast made the procedure a prosecutable crime carrying up to five years in jail and a hefty fine.)
But it won't be easy. The tradition has defenders everywhere. When Melching broached the subject with a group of women near Malicounda, she immediately got an earful of complaints.
"It was only when white people came and said you shouldn't do this anymore, that those women said they didn't believe in circumcision," said Mame Fatou Diatta, 33, her eyes blazing. "I saw Mrs. Clinton come and denigrate our culture!" she shouted, referring to the first lady's embrace of the Malicounda women at a televised celebration in Dakar.
And near Ker Simbara, a group of elderly men sat under a big tree, arguing with Diawara. "Circumcision is normal, according to Mohammed," said the local imam, cross-legged on a mat, with a heavy Koran open on his lap. "We could not stop it."
So, too, thought Sarr, who lost her job as a circumciser. Yet months of discussion won her over. Now, the same peer pressure that makes scrapping female circumcision impossible elsewhere makes it equally untenable to continue it here. As Sarr said: "When I learned that this might cause sterility, infections, I didn't want to be the cause of all that."
If the idea is to take hold throughout Senegal, let alone the rest of Africa, it will need hundreds more villages to join the fight. But word has already carried clear across this country. Last Tuesday, hundreds of miles south of here, 15 more villages gathered in celebration, to declare they would never again practice female circumcision.
Vivienne Walt has written about Africa for Newsday and U.S. News & World Report.