Convincing grandmothers key to ending genital mutilation of girls
Kolda region (Senegal), 31 January 2010, ST PETERSBURG TIMES

KOLDA REGION, Senegal — In this corner of West Africa, old women are both ubiquitous and invisible. They feed, heal and watch the children; settle family squabbles; and sit in the shade of thatched awnings as the world passes them by.

Until, that is, Judi Aubel, a tall 62-year-old Californian, appears at the foot of their huts with a broad smile like a safari-bound Mary Poppins. Then, the old women throw up their arms in welcome, pump their visitor's hand, and share with Aubel all manner of confidences.

Aubel, an anthropologist and community health specialist, first got involved with elderly women in 1993 on a trip to Thailand. While parents worked the fields, grandmothers played a crucial role feeding children.

"We have prejudices against old people when in fact they are very wise," said Aubel. She founded a nonprofit group called the Grandmother Project in 2004 to help development organizations take elderly women into account.

In the Kolda region of southeastern Senegal, Aubel is using her expertise to help abolish female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. Her pilot project is co-financed by World Vision/Canada, a humanitarian charity, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Experts estimate that the partial or total removal of external female genitalia affects 2 million to 3 million girls each year, mostly in Africa. Its most extreme form, infibulation, can result in organ damage, incontinence, infertility, prolonged labor or death.

Public awareness of the dangers of female genital mutilation and efforts to ban the practice have increased in recent years, with the United Nations declaring Feb. 6 International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation.

In Senegal, the Kolda region is ground zero in the campaign to end female circumcision. A demographic and health survey in 2005 found that 94 percent of women and girls had been mutilated there, compared to 28 percent nationwide. Although female circumcision was banned by the Senegalese government in 1999, older women were neither consulted nor necessarily convinced.

Aubel's aim is to fix that.

Taking time to persuade older women makes sense: They wield the blade and supervise the girls during the koyan (literally, "the test"), the traditional rite of passage practiced by the Halpular people.

In the village of Saré Kouna, about two dozen neat huts surrounded by pastures and peanut fields, a 60-year-old woman explained her peers' r eluctance to renounce their traditions.

"The law scared people. We couldn't perform our rites openly — the village chief would have been jailed," said Hawa Baldé, her head framed by a spotless white scarf. "But our hearts had not abandoned circumcision. We did it secretly to very young girls. We didn't know if the act of cutting had a physical virtue or not. It was a tradition."

In this tradition, young girls, ages 5 to 10 generally, were taken from their families, grouped in a hut, operated on without much regard for hygiene or pain, and then kept under the watch of elderly women for weeks while they recovered from their wounds. Some died from the bleeding and infections; many others suffered painful complications later in life, particularly during childbirth.

In the nearby village of Kandia, Binta Sabaly, 51, remembers with terror the woman who cut her when she was 10.

"I would crouch low to the ground when I saw her from afar. I did not dare look at her in the eyes."

Sabaly is an assistant midwife who knows firsthand the complications caused by circumcision during labor. Yet she retains a sort of nostalgia for the difficult times she shared with about 30 other girls that year.

"We were sent to collect wood and peanuts. We learned how to prepare meals and how to salute older villagers with respect," she said. "We danced and sang, and learned to interpret the gestures of grandmothers without a spoken word."

"The koyan meant that authority existed. Girls came out of it with the idea of accepting and submitting to authority," echoed Baldé.

When Senegal banned female genital mutilation 10 years ago, the practice went underground, increasingly performed on girls too young to remember anything but the excruciating pain. This degradation of the rite took place against a background of rapid social change that further threatened village life.

Economic migration, new roads and television brought foreign ideas to remote villages. Revealing clothes, rasta hairdos and postures copied from Mexican telenovelas started competing with traditional dress and decorum. Thousands of new classrooms, where lessons are taught in French, widened the gap between generations. By going off to school — instead of working at home and marrying young — teenage girls also became more exposed to the dangers of flirtation and pregnancy out of wedlock.

Since 2006, Aubel and her staff have coaxed elderly women in about 15 villages to reflect on their customs and traditions in the hope that they will reconsider harmful practices and revive beneficial ones.

In these villages, communal storytelling nights, traditional dances and singing are enjoying a comeback.

At a forum in Kandia in December 2009, men and women from two villages spent two days in a classroom sharing their views, breaking into small workshops, and bursting into song and dance to the beat of a drum. An imam reminded participants that a woman does not have to be circumcised to be a good Muslim. (The Koran does not condone female circumcision.) Sabaly, the assistant midwife, described the prolonged, painful labor of circumcised women.

"It's an approach based on respect and dialogue," said Aubel. "What I offer is an exchange. They can't refuse to share ideas when they feel they have so much to say."
For Baldé, a similar two-day forum in 2008 had a life-altering impact.

She came away convinced that values such as solidarity, respect and honor were not so outdated. Baldé promptly gathered all the inhabitants of Saré Kouna to announce the end of circumcision and was elected president of the local grandmothers.

Asked how she would educate 2-year-old Hawa Kandé sitting quietly on her lap, Baldé answered she would protect her from cutting, and teach her how to behave properly through traditional songs and tales.

"If she receives lessons both from school and her elders, she will be set for life."

Flore de Préneuf is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Washington, D.C.

© Flore de Préneuf