Today is a day the United Nations and the World Health Organization have set aside to rally our hearts and attention to a difficult subject. February 6 is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Kate Grant, CEO of the Fistula Foundation, helps us understand the long term health implications for girls and women who are victims of FGM and why facing these hard topics is essential for change.
The procedure is performed on girls between infancy and age 15 and is a cultural practice that has been handed down for generations because of the belief that it will result in chaste and marriageable daughters. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof so astutely observed, “People usually torture those whom they fear or despise. But one of the most common forms of torture in the modern world…is inflicted by mothers on daughters they love.”
Stopping this practice is no easy task. Culture and beliefs are two of the most difficult things to change.
Fistula and FGM
The Fistula Foundation supports the treatment of obstetric fistula, an injury caused by prolonged obstructed labor. Without emergency intervention, like a C-section, a woman will remain in labor sometimes for days, until her baby is dislodged. The constant pressure from the baby causes tissue to die, which creates a tiny hole – a fistula – through which a woman will leak urine, or feces, or both. Her incontinence often prompts her husband and community to abandon her because they cannot stand her smell, often because they believe the woman is cursed. These beliefs and the stigma around obstetric fistula are the focus of the work of a number of our partners, because in order to provide surgical treatment, a woman and her community first need to understand that what she’s suffering from is an injury, not a curse.
While FGM does not cause fistula, the scar tissue that develops when the cuts have healed can complicate matters for a woman who develops obstetric fistula, potentially requiring several invasive surgeries in order to attempt a repair.
The Fistula Foundation is fortunate to be funding two pioneering partners working to treat obstetric fistula, run by strong leaders who are working to end FGM – and are seeing some great impact. One of these partners is Edna Adan. As a young girl growing up in what is today the breakaway Republic of Somaliland, Edna was an unsuspecting victim of FGM. Today, as founder of the Edna Adan University Hospital, Edna trains midwives to respond to and overcome cultural and traditional beliefs regarding FGM. When training is complete, these midwives return to their communities and teach that FGM should be abolished. As Edna said recently, FGM has no place in medicine because it is harmful and damaging; no place in religion, because Islam does not encourage it, and no place to prevent promiscuity or preserve virginity – it is a girl’s upbringing that protects her morals and her virginity.
In Senegal, Molly Melching moved to the country as a Peace Corps volunteer three decades ago and never left. She realized early on that the way to help communities prosper was to start by listening, without judgment, to understand the hopes and aspirations of the community. Within the boundaries of these trusting relationships, she started to understand more sensitive topics, like FGM. By focusing on communities’ beliefs and understanding from where these beliefs begin, Molly could overcome cultural barriers without demonizing those who promoted FGM’s continuation.
The organization Molly founded, Tostan, has used wise and respectful approaches to successfully encourage more than 6,000 communities in eight countries to declare an end to the practice of FGM.
The Take Action Challenge
What can people like you and I do to join the Edna Adans and Molly Melchings of the world? The first step is just being aware that there’s a problem. The next step is spreading that awareness so it can translate to action.
Right now, click here and please take a moment to hear, in Edna’s words, why education is the only realistic way to change culture and end the practice of FGM. Then share this post with at least one friend, and ask them to do the same.
“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.” ~ African proverb
Working within the framework of existing cultural beliefs to change behavior, ending this practice is possible. Stand with me, with the United Nations, WHO and countless other organizations and individuals who are lending their voices and energy to end FGM and help girls grow into women with their bodies intact.
Kate Grant is CEO of The Fistula Foundation, a nonprofit that works to end the suffering caused by the childbirth injury of obstetric fistula. Follow the organization online on Twitter and on Facebook.