KEUR SIMBARA, Senegal (TrustLaw)--It is has been 13 years since the people of this little village, 76km from Dakar, stopped female genital mutilation (FGM) and they are not only proud of their decision but they are championing the cause of renouncing the practice across Senegal.
“You see those children over there – none of them has been cut,” said Dossou Konate, a mother of six, proudly pointing at a group of girls sitting on a mat, near a stack of hay in her courtyard.
Like the 28 communities in Africa and the Middle-East where the U.N Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says 3 million girls are cut yearly, Keur Simbara used to practice FGM, also known as female circumcision that involves removing external parts of a girl's genitals and sometimes narrowing the vaginal opening.
The tradition was so strong that when women from other villages where FGM was not practised married men in this village they were considered impure until they were circumcised, Konate said.
But that changed after the villagers participated in a community empowerment programme that involved adult literacy as well as training in human, political and health rights.
The health module taught them to identify the health risks, including bleeding, HIV, tetanus and difficulty in childbirth,which their girls were facing with the continued practise of FGM.
“We realised that we had to review this tradition,” Konate said.
Presently, Demba Diawara, the chief of Keur Simbara, leads a team of four campaigners who have succeeded in convincing the people of 347 villages in Senegal to abandon the ancient tradition.
“Honestly, it is not an easy task for a village chief – a custodian of our traditions- to be at the forefront of explaining why people have to abandon a rite which we inherited from our ancestors,” Diawara told TrustLaw.
“But what do we have heads for if we can’t use our brains to think? If we can think about the usefulness of something and think about how we can move on, all else becomes easy,” he said.
The villagers of Keur Simbara did use their heads. They analysed the practice and concluded that it did not have to be maintained--but that was after several months of discussion and debate that involved the wider community from neighbouring villages which also held the same traditions.
In the end, they jointly decided to abandon FGM. Diawara and his team , which includes his son, Konate and another woman who used to perform the cutting, have used the same principle in other villages, although usually it is not without challenges.
“Sometimes we are insulted and chased out of villages, but we still go back three or four times if necessary. We tell them that if we have come to talk to them about excision (FGM) it is not because we lack respect for their traditions or we are disrespectful of their person. Then people start listening and we proceed,” said Konate.
Senegal passed a law forbidding FGM in 1999 but the practice continues in parts of the country and will only stop when communities themselves choose to do so, based on their understanding of the merits of such a decision, groups advocating for a rights-based approach have said.
“It is their decision and their decision alone without anybody patronising them,” said Rose Diop, the community mobilisation officer for Tostan Senegal, the organisation that has been promoting the community-based approach that proved successful in Keur Simbara.
More than 4,000 villages in Senegal have abandoned FGM since 1997 with the support of Tostan, which has also recorded success in neighbouring Mauritania and the Gambia. Their approach also encourages in abandonment to be done in clusters – whereby groups of villages and not just individuals decide to end the practice.
For example, it would have been difficult for women from Keur Simbara to marry in their wider ethnic communities if the others were still practising FGM, Diop said.
“We tell villages that still practise excision (FGM) that we were doing the same thing (but) we thought deeply about its consequences and stopped. Now we would like them to think about those consequences for their daughters too,” said Konate.