INTERVIEW WITH FATOU KEBE
Behind a “cultural practice”
We had the opportunity to meet Fatou Kebe, member of the Community of Practice since 2017, when she came in Brussels for an international expert meeting on management and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting, organized by three francophone universities.
With a background in sociology, Fatou Kebe has highlighted the existence of an unknown type of intervention on the female genital, practice within the Wolof community in Senegal: “the removal of sothieuntes”. According to her, this practice should be seen as a form of female genital mutilation.
It was during the arrival of her cousin in Senegal in 2016 that Fatou discovered the reality of a cultural practice. In Senegal, it’s a tradition that members of the diaspora return to Senegal in order to « consummate their marriage », that is have a first sexual intercourse. It’s a way of « wash their skin in front of family members » by proving woman’s virginity.
Her paternal cousin, Animata (cover name) arrives in Senegal but the first sexual intercourse with her husband isn’t possible because of the difficulties of penetration. According to her aunts, Animata would have « sothieuntes » (the name used in Senegal for warts) that it would be necessary to cut in order to « facilitate penetration ». Fatou was astonished – especially as her cousin can’t have a sexually transmitted infection since she never had sex before her marriage – and therefore proposes to examine her cousin to detect the presence of possible warts, but she finds no sign of it. « She was normal, like me. » Arguing that the « sothieuntes » don’t exist, Fatou is against the cutting of the genital organ of Animata and, with the agreement of her cousin and her husband, calls a gynecologist to make an appointment. Her parents and aunts strongly opposed it and they give to Fatou an ultimatum: either she respects the decision of the family, or she leaves the house.
The next day, her cousin is cut. It was very painful, her screams could be heard 300 meters away. Animata is then forced to « consummate her marriage » because the other women say that « when you are cut, you must automatically have sex with your husband because they say that if you don’t do it, the sothieuntes will come back ». Two days later, Fatou examines her cousin again and finds an incision of the vaginal mucosa.
“This situation opened my eyes to the practice and completely changes my idea of it. Of course, I already knew the practice – my mother, my aunts and many of my friends have faced it – but before I thought on the one hand that there were indeed « sothieuntes » and on the other hand I shared the idea of my community that it was an honorable practice for woman to prove her virginity.
It’s my cousin’s situation that made me realize that we don’t remove warts – because there are none – but that we make an incision at the opening of the vagina. I understood that this is in fact an intervention without medical justification, a kind of mutilation. And in Senegal it’s often said that the Wolof community doesn’t practices excision. But that’s an excision, it’s a form of mutilation! It’s not a type I or II because the glans of the clitoris or the lips aren’t cut, but it’s a form of genital mutilation ».
This practice is mainly realized in December-January, because it’s the period during which the members of the diaspora return to Senegal, and the newlyweds consume their marriage; but also during the festival of Tabaski (in August) because there is a lot of marriage during this period.
The realization of a research to understand the reasons for this practice
In order to understand this practice, Fatou decides to conduct a sociological research. Having failed to find funding, she finance the research mainly with their own resources, but she’s also supported by 25% at the logistical level by a local NGO, enabling her to be assisted by students for data collection.
In the end, 25 interviews were conducted between October and December 2018 with « practitioners » (in everyday language, « practitioners » are called « sothieuntes » cutters), women who have undergone « the removal of the sothieuntes » and health providers (gynecologists and midwives), including 15 direct and 10 informal interviews.
Fatou had to revise his survey methodology at the beginning of the research in the face of refusal by some “practitioners” to participate in interviews. To address this problem, she used the method of « mystery client »: she hid her true identity as a researcher and approached the « practitioners » by presenting itself as a resident of the neighborhood. A video containing testimonies of midwives, two women who have undergone the practice and a practitioner has also been produced in partnership with the Commmunity of Practice on FGM and will be published shortly.
What are the perceptions of health professionals, women who have undergone the practice, and “practitioners”?
The « practicioners »: Interviews with practitioners reveal that they justify their practices in many ways. According to them, the « sothieuntes » exist. These are warts that need to be cut, as otherwise the person concerned would have painful sexual intercourse all the time, and she would run the risk of not having children.
Women who have undergone the practice: Women over the age of 30 were interviewed, as well as youth aged 18 to 24. The results of the interviews reveal two distinct groups:
- Some say that if they have to do it again, she will do it again, especially for a question of honor related to virginity. In Senegal, there are many practices to justify virginity, and « the removal of sothieuntes » is part of it :
« When we cut a girl there is no doubt, we know that the girl is a virgin. On the other hand, if nothing is cut, and that she goes to the hotel with her husband (to consume her wedding elsewhere than in the family home), there will be doubts on her virginity. To prevent people from doubting their virginity, girls prefer be cut ».
Note that they don’t evoke the presence of warts or other genital problems that would justify medical intervention.
– The second group is against the practice, especially because of its consequences. Some experience pain during intercourse, others suffer from lack of desire, don’t feel pleasure, and aren’t bloomed. They refused that their daughters are subjected to the practice.
– Only one gynecologist says that « sothieuntes » are condyloma, that is to say genital warts. Fatou explains the perception of this gynecologist by the fact that in the Wolof community, all the warts are called « sothieuntes ». So what the « practitioners » would remove would be genital warts. Except that most women who have undergone the practice have never had sex, it’s therefore unlikely that they have a sexually transmitted infection and bearers of condyloma.
- The majority of health providers say that « sothieuntes » don’t exist. They agree that the practice of « removal of sothieuntes » is actually an incision of the vaginal mucosa made to women to facilitate penetration. There is no connection with the presence of genital warts.
- Also, for these providers, what would prevent the penetration would probably be due to a vaginismus, that is to say a muscle contraction, itself due to the stress felt by the women during the first sexual intercourse.
A further study
Due to lack of resources, research was only carried out in two regions of Senegal: Dakar and Louga.
Nevertheless, the practice would also be widespread in other regions, and in other ethnic groups. For example, Fatou is aware of the practice in her region of origin, the Saint-Louis region, and according to a « practitioner » interviewed, the practice would also be widespread in the Diourbel region. These are fairly close geographically, located in West Senegal (see Appendix 1). All these regions are mainly composed of Wolof communities (see Appendix 2).
This research should therefore be further developed with a wider geographical area and a more representative sample of the population concerned:
« There are a lot of things that we still have to exploit, share and raise awareness, because people who do it think it’s a cultural practice and that everybody has to do it when in fact it’s not good. There are consequences, but women don’t always know that it’s related to the practice. They just think that since she is cut, everyone is happy and you are honored in front of the family”.
Fatou would like a practitioner to show her what she is cutting in order to better understand the practice. A short film in progress should allow her to highlight the case of his cousin Animata.
Finally, thanks to the results of her research, Fatou would like to build an argument and advocate with the Senegalese government for the integration of this practice in the fight against FGM in Senegal.
Currently, the practice of FGM is prohibited in Senegal (1999 law), and there are 25.7% of women circumcised in 2015. However, as « the removal of sothieuntes » is currently not taken into account, the prevalence of FGM in Senegal could significantly increase if this practice would be recognized as a FGM.
APPENDIX 1 : The 14 regions of Senegal (source : UN, 2004 : https://www.un.org/Depts/Cartographic/map/profile/senegal.pdf)
APPENDIX 2: The Wolof language in Senegal (source: Par SyntaxTerror — Travail personnel, File:Senegal adm location map.svg, Ethnologue maps (Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78602911)
 28TOOMANY – Les MGF au Sénégal – June 2015