Ramatoulie Jallow, a cherubic 14-year-old from the Gambia, recently spoke about her father’s successful struggle to save her from being sent “to the bush” 10 years ago, where an elder community-woman was waiting to circumcise her and numerous other Fulani girls.
From 1997 to 1998, Ramatolulie’s father, Baba Jallow, fought his village elders to save his daughter from the practice he and human rights groups call “female genital mutilation.” In Jallow’s Gambian village, Farafenni, the practice is annually performed on as many as 30 young girls, all under the age of five, reportedly all with the same blade and never with anesthesia. Other African and Middle Eastern countries also practice such circumcisions.
Jallow says some girls die each year in Farafenni just from the immediate shock. “Today, both Ramatoulie and her little sister, Wuri, are growing up into full, beautiful young ladies,” said Jallow. Jallow has documented his struggle in his book “Dying for My Daughter” (Wasteland Press, 2004).
Every year, more than one million females are subjected to circumcision, a long-sustained cultural practice with potentially life-threatening results accompanied by unspeakable pain and suffering, according to the World Health Organization. Using recent Census estimates and tracking the countries where the practice is prevalent, the CDC estimates that there are thousands of girls and women at risk right here in the US.
People in the medical community are also concerned that immigrants are perpetuating the tradition in their adopted homelands, according to Dr. Meridith Sher of Eastside Women’s OB/GYN Center. Sher said she’s seen 15-20 cases in her five-year medical career and has treated women for long-term complications resulting from the procedure. Data concerning the practice among immigrants is particularly hard to gather considering most recent immigrants don’t visit gynecologists on a regular basis and may be aware of the 1996 U.S. law banning the procedure. While some African immigrants take their daughters back to their native countries to be circumcised, others reportedly perform the procedure in the secrecy of their homes here.
“I think they probably pay the airfare of a practitioner to come here and perform it in the house, to keep it indoors,” Jallow suggests. He maintains that many of the circumcised girls are tormented forever. The practice “dampens women’s spirit and takes the luster out of their eyes,” he added.
Dr. Harvey Rutstein, a gynecologist who says he’s treated half a dozen women who underwent the procedure, spoke about the impact. “I don’t think any of the women wanted it done,” because of the trauma, he said. “It has psychological effects. You’re taking out tissue that belongs in the body.”
Some medical professionals contacted for this story report that, ironically, criminalization of the procedure here may have forced the practice underground—they fear some women may not seek medical care because those who conduct it on the women risk serving a five-year prison sentence. Although there have been some documented female circumcision cases in the United States, none were tried under the existing laws.
Given that health providers increasingly see women with female genital circumcision, the American college of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is sending a new clinical manual to every OB/GYN in the country. It includes slides of circumcised women, information about the history and meaning of the practice, and the medical consequences and complications.
One of the U.S. organizations leading the effort to eradicate the practice is a New York-based international women’s right group called Equality Now, which works to end violence and discrimination against women through the mobilization of public pressure. Jessica Neuwirth, founder of Equality Now and a Harvard Law professor believes the practice is taking place in the U.S. and that “parents are taking their children back to their countries of origin in Africa to have it done outside the U.S.”
“There’s absolutely nothing that allows a woman in danger of female genital mutilation to seek help,” in the U.S., added Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of Equality Now. “There’s nowhere for her to turn.” Noting that women find themselves in overwhelmingly unfamiliar situations after coming here, Bien-Aimé said, “Social services simply aren’t available or they’re inept and can’t meet these women’s pressing needs.” Bien-Aimé spoke favorably of Sweden and the Britain’s approach, where a social worker is assigned to children at risk and a law forbids removing such children from their country to have infibulation performed abroad.
While acknowledging female circumcision has cultural significance, Bien-Aime stressed: “Equality Now approaches female genital mutilation through more than a health approach; we also see the practice in terms of a human rights violation. Female genital mutilation causes severe psychological and physical damage. It violates International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ensure bodily integrity.”
Bien-Aimé offered another major reason why the practice continues: Because “there’s no systematic educational approach. Women are often told it’s illegal without being taught about the health and humanitarian repercussions.” She also said there is “a severe lack of attention and funding” to grassroots organizations fighting the practice.
As more and more activists become involved in the cause to curb female genital mutilation amongst U.S. immigrants, the question of cultural sensitivity continues surfacing. “It is my strong feeling that the movement must be led by African activists,” said Neuwirth, the Equality Now founder.
How do long-held traditions that are harmful fall? Pseudo-medical documents reveal female genital mutilation was actually performed in the U.S. during the early 20th century to “cure” women of masturbation, homosexuality and frigidity. With the progress of research and education, the practice was eventually discredited and abandoned.
Similarly, girls’ feet are no longer bound in China and widows are less pressured to throw themselves on funeral pyres in India. At the 1995 U.N. conference in Beijing, a world that once ignored female “circumcision” recognized the practice as “violence.”
Global concern also is having impact and some African countries now have laws against the practice; Eritrea, for example, banned the procedure on March 31, this year.
And, at the grassroots level where it counts most, there are always those such Baba Jallow, who are willing to rise from within their communities –even at the risk of being ostracized— in order to protect a daughter.