Female genital mutilation – a young woman from The Gambia recounts her story

Many women and girls across the world are still being mutilated in the name of family honour and virginity. Serious health problems and psychological trauma are the result.

Foto: Leighann Blackwood / Unsplash | CC0

You can find the German version of the article here.

Warning: The following text deals with physical violence. For some readers, this can be emotionally stressful and have a triggering effect.

Amie Dibba* (25) from The Gambia was just five years old when her clitoris was cut off. Her mother had promised her a party – a traditional party, the mother had said, with sweets, music, dancing and new clothes, just for little girls like her. Amie was delighted. Of course she wanted sweets. She was looking forward to it.

But when she got to the party, there were no sweets. There was no dancing or music either. Instead her mother escorted her into a small tent. There were two women waiting for her. An older woman dressed in traditional garb and a tall women who immediately forced Amie to lie down on the floor, tied a scarf around her eyes and stuffed her mouth with bananas. Ami wasn’t supposed to see what was about to happen to her. And she wasn’t supposed to scream either.

„Just open your legs“

Moments later all she could hear were voices: „You have to do it, you cannot be clean with that thing between your legs and you will never have a man to marry, just open your legs“, she was told. „Your mother and whole generations went through the same procedure“, another voice exclaimed. Amie could feel three more women holding her hands and forcing her legs to open while the Nyansiba (the circumciser in the local language Mandinka) started cutting her.

Up to this day Amie can recount the severe pain she then felt. It stuck in her throat as she tried to scream for help.

Now, 20 years later, Amie is sitting in her small flat share in Berlin, where she tries to recollect her memories from that day. „I still have no idea what the circumciser used to cut my clitoris, a knife or a razor blade, I don’t know.“

She came to Berlin three years ago after fleeing from a forced marriage. It has been a long and arduous journey for her; from the small West African state The Gambia, via Mali, Libya, Italy finally to Germany.

Female genital mutilation is supposed to be in the interest of the girls

The traditional beliefs underlying the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa vary greatly from one ethnic group to another. But it is generally endorsed by many communities and supported by parents as it is supposed to be in the best interest of the young girls. Despite its dangerous physical and psychological effects.

In The Gambia, Amie’s homeland, as well as other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, like Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, types two and three of FGM are practised. These include so-called infibulation, the almost complete closure of the vaginal orifice by cutting and closing the labia to create a skin-seal leaving only a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Most circumcisers claim that they mix the blood of the circumcised girl with some herbs to seal the labia. This is believed to avoid penetration which may lead to unwanted pregnancy before marriage. „First, I was circumcised and sealed and then re-circumcised at fifteen“, Amie recounts. All of this to ensure her virginity. On her wedding day she was then penetrated by her husband.

A lot of pain

Most – if not all – traditional circumcisers have no medical background. They apply old, traditional techniques – the reason why some girls even die during the mutilation or battle very serious health complications afterwards.

Just like Amie, who says that she has huge difficulties with sexual encounters, suffers from substantial menstrual cramps as well as depression and trauma.

A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that female genital mutilation has no health benefits whatsoever, but harms girls and women in many ways. Chronic genital infections, menstrual problems, mental health problems, sexual problems as well as complications during childbirth are the result.

Amie recounts how it was almost impossible for her to urinate right after circumcision, she and other girls had to go for days without cleaning themselves in order to avoid infections of their wounds. „After every circumcision a bunch of girls are brought into a room and are being kept by the circumciser for around three months. We were about 50 or more girls all between three and ten years old“, Amie says. Their wounds were being treated with traditional potions made out of moist green tea, tomato paste and powdered barks.

Only when the wounds are healed the festivities for the girls do take place. A few days before Amie was supposed to have the festivities celebrating her circumcision, a woman called Kintago („the circumcised one“) noticed that not all of Amie’s clitoris had been cut off. She needed to be re-circumcised, the woman said. But Amie refused.

FGM is practised worldwide

Ten years later, when she was 15 years old, she was taken out of school to get married. She had two children following her marriage, but has never felt any pleasure during sex. Amie sadly shakes her head as she talks about it: „Feeling pain during sex is like the desire to never have to do it. The most pleasurable part of my genitals has been cut off to preserve my virginity for my parents and my husband.“

Nonetheless many parents, just like Amie’s, stick to this tradition. According to the WHO, who recognize FGM as an international human rights violation, more than 100 million girls and women have undergone female genital cutting (FGC, also known as „female circumcision“), and more than three million female infants and children are at risk for this procedure annually. Also in Germany more and more girls and women are affected by female genital mutilation. According to a recent study by the women’s rights organization Terre des Femmes around 65.000 girls and women in Germany have been genitally mutilated.

It is mostly parents from African countries who take their daughters to their native countries during the summer months to have them undergo circumcision. Although The Gambia has signed many international and regional treaties prohibiting the practice of both FGM and child marriage, it was not until 2015 that an act effectually banned FGM and imposed punishment for violating the law.

As of 2013, according to a UNICEF report, 24 African countries have imposed legislations against this practice. However, other sub-Saharan countries like Mali, Liberia and Sierra-Leone have no legal measures in place. And even despite the official ban in countries like The Gambia, Sudan and Eritrea FGM is still being practised.

Living with the pain

Looking back on her journey, Amie, the tall and dark skinned mother of two, describes her arrival in Berlin as part of a rehabilitation process. Amie hopes that FGM and forced marriage will be punished by law everywhere.

„Traditions are traditions and must be embraced, but harmful traditions like female genital mutilation, forced – and child marriage should be legally punished, perpetrators should pay for what they did“, she says, „it is only girls themselves that should decide what happens to their bodies.“ Sex should be enjoyed, Amie says, our clitoris matter.

*Name has been changed