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The young people understand
1 Jul 2010
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In Africa, when the old say something, everyone listens.”

Groupe Femmes pour l´Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles (GAMS). A national federation that fights for the abolition of female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and other traditional practices harmful to the health of women and children. Founded in 1982 by African women living in France together with French women, it is a secular and apolitical nonprofit. Interviewed July 2010.

The young people understand

It helps to move forward, to not lose hope. To understand the women, all African women, if you have this fight, it’s personal. Even if she herself was not excised, she has maybe a sister. We are always affected somewhere personally, be it a friend, be it a sister, or a cousin who was. We cannot escape it. There is a personal self within.

I am not different. I was excised, so me, I know that it’s not good. I came to France very young, and I came to understand many things with my studies.

Now twenty years, I’m in this. I am a social worker at GAMS.[1] I work with everything that is excision and a little bit of forced marriage. It’s true that it helps me a lot personally. It helps me because it allows me to share my experience with others and to help others. It allows me to say to myself, “At least, I did something of worth. I brought something.” To be able to bring something to others, that motivates me and allows me to go on, despite the difficulty. It allows me to go on.

A day at GAMS, that depends on the day. There are days where we do trainings in schools. We also do professional trainings with social workers, educators, nurses, gynecologists, and doctors.

If it’s not a training day, in the office we receive clients and families. There are families that ask for refuge in France to protect their little girls against excision in their countries. We help them do paperwork, to present their cases to the OFPRA,[2] and the prefecture, so they might have visas for the time they are in France to prevent the excision of their little girl.

There are others who come by to say they heard someone is going to excise their daughter. We are going to intervene with the family, so that they have mediation to prevent this excision. We work with the African population and all the other populations that practice excision. 

When we do interventions, we give statistics. We show the numbers of all the countries that practice excision. We work with numbers from the World Health Organization.

It’s true, the statistics don’t speak themselves. In the classroom, people also give the personal perspectives. Me, that happened to meI knew someone who that happened to… There are always personal perspectives to exchange.

We don’t say, “See, excision. It’s necessary to stop it.” No, we don’t do that. We come and say, “See, this is excision, type 1, type 2, type 3…” the names, how it’s done, where it’s done, who practices it, the statistics from the World Health Organization, and after we give the floor to the audience. Each person says what they have lived, their testimony.

There are many questions. We try to respond to the questions, and that makes the presentation stronger. The lived experience allows people to understand that we don’t invent this. It’s reality. There are people in the room who have lived it.

The majority of people in France now who have been excised, the excision was done in their country of origin. It’s true, it was practiced in France, but now it’s forbidden in France. Same in the countries of origin, it’s forbidden but there is no punishment. The people still practice it.  

The four types they practice: The first type is just a small incision, like the piercing of the clitoris. It’s not mutilation in itself. It’s like people who get piercings. It’s at the level of the clitoris. The type 2, they remove the clitoris, and then the small lips. Type 3, they remove the clitoris, they remove the small lips, they pierce the big lips and sew them together, and they leave just a tiny hole for the flow of blood and pee. It’s necessary to cut it back open when the woman gets married, if she is going to bed. It’s the most barbaric type. The type 4, it’s a lengthening. They’re going to chew out the clitoris to make it longer. They’re not going to cut it but lengthen it. That’s the type 4 and it’s more done in central Africa, in Uganda; we don’t see it much here either.

The type 2 is the type that we see here because it’s the one that is practiced most in West Africa. In France, the majority of immigrants are West African, so that means Senegal, Mali, Guinea, the Ivory Coast. Because they come from a part of Africa where there are not a lot of resources—they’re in arid zones—they immigrate to work and to make a living. It’s this African population in France, and this population that also practices type 2 excision in their country. For this reason, there are enormous amounts of people in France who’ve been excised. Of the immigrants who are here about 90%  practice excision. It's enormous.

Maybe the type 3, infibulation, we are going to find more in London or northern countries, Norway, Sweden, because there are more Somalians, Sudanese, Ethiopian. It’s they who practice the type 3. 

It’s true there are degrees of excision, but it’s all the same a mutilation. It’s not a question of less serious. Only it’s true that the type 2 is less painful than the infibulation, the type 3. But it’s a mutilation; it’s the same mutilation.

It’s painful, it’s an enormous suffering, and that generates a lot of other suffering because someone who has suffered this, like a rape, has a psychological shock, illnesses, STDs, urinary infections, sterility. A woman may not be able to have any children. It’s enormous this mutilation. It’s a violation of a person, which brings a lot of other pain. It’s not normal.

But there are ideas in the culture. There are some that say that it enhances pleasure, and there are others who say that a girl is going to stay faithful, stay a virgin if she is excised. Others say that if you excise the girl, she’s going to have a lot of children. There are a lot of ideas, and they’re not true.

In the trainings, we start explaining the reality to students who are thirteen, fourteen years old up to high school. Before thirteen, they are too young to understand.

It really helps raise awareness of young people. Especially, there are young people who were excised who don’t understand why and that gives them their answer. We say why it’s done, how it’s done, who does it, for what reasons. We give them all the answers because the parents don’t necessarily give them the answers. Sometimes there are language difficulties because the parents who are here don’t speak a lot of French and don’t understand much French. They can’t communicate with their children because their children are born here; they speak more French than their language of origin. The parents cannot explain it, so we give them the answers to their questions.

Most of the time, they understand and sometimes, there are young people who come to see us. They say, “Before, I was mad at my parents because they did that to me, and now I understand why they did that to me. But I don’t want them to do it to my little sister. I am going to talk to my parents. Since there is the possibility to repair it, when I am grown, I want to repair it, and I am going to speak to my parents.”

It is possible to have an operation to repair the excision. We have young girls who come to have the reparative surgery done, and we accompany them through this process. We direct them to doctors, gynecologists, and psychologists.

The operation is not difficult. You must be older than fifteen, so you must not be considered a sexual minor. A psychologist is going to speak with the person about why they want to have the operation, and if she understands why she was excised. They do a psychological exam. After, the psychologist is going to send her to the gynecologist who is going examine her to determine the level of the excision. After that, the gynecologist is going to know what operation to do. After the operation there is still a psychological follow-up. That process is free. It’s completely free.

Still, the most important aspect in the work of GAMS is the awareness-raising. Awareness-raising is also the most difficult, especially in Africa, especially at the level of men. The men don’t really understand excision. They don’t participate in it. They don’t know how it’s done. It’s they who demand excision. They want the girls to be excised but they don’t know how it’s done. When we go to show them images, they change their minds completely.

It’s true, there is a law that forbids it, but if we don’t say why the law forbids it, they do not understand. It’s necessary to show them why it’s not good. When you explain that something is not good, if they understand, they stop. They don’t need punishment, but if you punish each time and you don’t explain it, they’re going to continue to do it. It’s always necessary to leave with an explanation.

Yes, there is resistance. There is resistance because there are always negative people who don’t want to understand or who want absolutely to stay in their culture, who think that, “No, our culutre is that which is good.” Happily, there are not many. More and more, there is less resistance.

Before, in the 80’s, there were only women who said, “No, we don’t want it.” From the beginning until now, it was only women who said, “No.” For example, within GAMS before, there were only women. Now there are men. There are many men who are joining the fight, who don’t want it anymore. More and more, men are saying, “Ah, it’s not good. If it affects women, it’s the health of women. If it’s the health of women, it’s the health of our children.” Now, in the office, in the administration itself, there are men.

As for the laws, that evolves too. Before in France, excision was a misdemeanor; it was not a crime. So we have fought. We have made it at least a crime. At the level of corrections, now there is a legal process. There are excisers who are condemned; there are parents who are condemned. Before, the protection protected just the little French girls; now, it’s all girls.

Now, also in Africa there are countries that have laws. There were countries that didn’t have laws but now with the Maputo Protocol[3] that was put in place, excision is forbidden in all African territory.

The protocol forbids excision on all African territory. Then, where certain countries have national laws and others don’t have them, there is the protocol that protects the people. Only, the law alone cannot do it. It’s necessary to always continue the awareness-raising alongside the law.

There is all the same an evolution because the law exists. Before, there wasn’t any. That is progress.

Maybe us, our generation, there will always be excision but maybe the new generation, in ten years, fifteen years, it will be no more. The young people have begun to understand. The young people, who in ten years are going to be the parents, they understand it’s not good. They no longer want excision, so their children are not excised. That takes time. It’s little by little, like all struggle.

They give hope, the young people. Also, the old: Before, we couldn’t speak with the elders. They wanted nothing to do with us. Now we are able to speak with them, and in Africa, when the old say something, everyone listens. The people who are much younger, if the elders say, “It’s not good. We must stop,” the youth are also going to stop.

The elderly, the chiefs of the village, the religious leaders, we are able to explain to them, and they understand. Before, “No, no, no, we don’t want to hear it. We want nothing to do with you.” Now, that is changing.

More and more, when we are able to convince the chiefs of the village, the chiefs of the village also are able also to convince the others in the village. “I decide in my village, we’re no longer going to do this.” With the others, they agree with us. 

Now, there are associations of religious leaders that fight against excision. Whether they are Muslim or whether they are Christian, the religious leaders of the villages, they fight, and they explain to others in the village why it’s not good. It is not in the religion. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s custom. If they continue, it’s not good.

That gives hope. 

For GAMS, I’ve done a lot. Already, GAMS represents the Inter-African Committee,[4] twenty-nine African countries. We represent these twenty-nine African countries in France, in Europe, and we advocate, especially for the realization of laws.

When we work on the realization of laws, there is an organization that works with us, which is called CAMS. The head Linda Weil-Curiel, she carries the civil part for the proceedings. We work together always.

We have done a lot of consciousness-raising in European countries and in African countries to end excision. We have done many campaigns. We have done tours; we have gone to the countries, to the villages. We hold many meetings, even at the level of the United Nations.

We are motivated for this. We truly want this to end. We are convinced by our fight. There are subsidies from the state, subsidies from Europe, and subsidies from generous people who help us. They help us to continue.

It’s a network. All the associations, we are altogether a resource. We are not alone. Each one has its specialty but we are never alone. We all work against violence against women: There are doctors; there are gynecologists; there are pediatricians; there are dentists.

I think it’s better because we all work together. For example, if I receive someone who has a particular problem, who says, “I was raped,” I am not trained for rape. I am trained for excision, for forced marriages. I know that rape is banned; I know that it’s punished by law; but how to step in, how to help the person? In the associations that work with rape, it’s certain that she is going to be well taken care of. I am going to direct her there.

When we work together, we are all a resource. It’s one network. We all find each other to become a link. I am not going to tell a woman, “Don’t come to me because I don’t help rape victims.” I say, “I don’t know how to take care of a rape victim, but I have my colleague who is in this association who knows how to work with rape, so I am going to call her.”

We are all engaged. We all have a connection to all associations. I am going to call the person, I am going to say, “Ok, I have someone with me,” and I am going to accompany her there. They are going to take her in. They’re going to take the next step. They are going to take care of this person. After, they are going to call me. “The person you sent me, we are taking care of her.”

It’s true that it’s not easy. It’s very difficult when you have someone in front of you who tells you, “I am suffering. I lived this.” It’s very difficult to take it, so you must have a strong morale for it. It’s for that reason you must be really trained to be able to hear it. It’s for that reason we must really use our network. 

[1]Groupe Femmes pour l´Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles : Women for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation.

[2]L'Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides : French office for the protection of refugees and the stateless.

[3]Maputo Protocol: Also called the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; guarantees rights to women, including the right to participate in politics and control their reproductive health; requires social and political equality for women and an end to female genital mutilation.

[4] The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC): International NGO with committees in 29 African countries and affiliates in 12 non-African countries.


Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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