FGM: a deeply embedded social norm

Maryam Sheikh shared her personal experience to highlight the dilemma faced by parents who want to both protect their daughters from Female Genital Mutilation and to ensure their belonging and integration into the community. In addition, the girls themselves may ask to undergo FGM in order to be like other girls in their community:

“To want to save girls from being cut, while at the same time allowing them to maintain their sense of belonging, is a real dilemma. It is an issue everywhere. I saw it with my own sister, who was so scared and worried when I convinced her not to cut her daughters. She was afraid that her daughters would not be disciplined (morally right). She was afraid of harassment and ridicule. She was also afraid that boys might be so interested in her daughters that they would  “lure them” in order “spoil” them. Her fears were valid but not a justification for continuing the practice. It took me hours and hours talking to her, repeating the same thing over and over again. It took patience! 
And then one of the girls was determined to be excised. When she was 10, she was not cut and all the students in her class were. She wanted to belong. She couldn’t talk about her experience (of FGM) to her peers; she didn’t even have anything to show (the girls in the community often said to each other, “show me and I’ll show you”). She wanted to belong. At one point, my sister told her that she would take her to Nairobi and that she could come back and tell her friends that she had been cut. I live in Nairobi, can you imagine the dilemma that would have been imposed on me? I went home. I talked to her but she was crying and saying she would go to her paternal aunt’s house to be excised. It was a difficult time. I remember holding her face and asking her to look me in the eye. I asked her if she trusted me, and she said yes. I told her to let it go, to trust me, because I know one day she will thank me. That was the only answer I had. Her mother wasn’t very convinced. But I made a point of calling them every other day, talking to my niece and reassuring her of her decision. Today she is in the third grade and she thanks me for saving her from pain and suffering. But she admits that she backs down when uncut girls are stigmatized by her peers. She says they don’t know that she is not cut.”

Annemarie Middelburg gave the example of a meeting with a mother who faced the same dilemma as Maryam Sheikh. She admits that she found herself caught off guard and struggling to find a solution:

“A few years ago, I interviewed a mother in a very remote village in Kolda, Senegal. We talked about the dilemma she faced in deciding to have her daughter – who was reaching the age to undergo the procedure – undergo FGM. The mother told me that she had had complications in childbirth a few years ago and that her newborn baby had died as a result of FGM. She also explained to me about her menstrual problems and the pain following her excision. She explained to me that at first she thought it was part of her status as a woman. However, she later learned – through education programs in her village – that these problems were related to FGM. Her daughter was playing outside the hut and, as she pointed her out to me, she asked, “What do you advise me to do? I know the harmful consequences of FGM, as I have experienced them myself. But I also want my daughter to be part of this community, find a husband and get married. ” Later, she told the stories of what she called “strong mothers” who had resisted FGM for themselves and/or their daughters but whose stories were at the same time fraught with stigma, ridicule and difficult acceptance as community members. The mother really didn’t know what to do. And to be honest, it was a difficult question that I also had to answer …”.

“The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation” is part of the “Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM” project, supported by the “UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM”.
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

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