Fighting female mutilation one small village at a time

David Gutnick's report on one woman's attempt to stop female mutilation in Mali.

Yaiguéré Tembely is a celebrity in her hometown of Bandiagara, Mali. Even school children wandering the dusty red-clay streets know her by her nickname, Fifi.

And where to find her. "Fifi's office is down from the traffic roundabout, across the alley from the goats, next to the millet grinder."

Fifi and her grandmother in Mali. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Fifi is the founder of Yam Giribolo-Tumo. In the Dogon language of West Africa it means The Association for the Promotion of Women's Rights.

More than 85 per cent of girls in Mali still have their genitals cut in an age-old ceremonial rite of passage. Female mutilation virtually eliminates sexual pleasure. More pressingly, the procedure often causes hemorrhages, infection and trauma.

An agronomist turned activist, Fifi's goal is to put an end to the practice. In the villages where she and her workers visit, fewer and fewer girls are being excised. In some, no girls are being mutilated at all.

Excision facts

According to the World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million African girls and women are living with the health consequences of female genital mutilation.

Approximately three million girls between infancy and 15 still undergo the procedure each year.

Until a decade ago, it was considered nearly universal in parts of Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Mali.

Fifi's opponents

Dogon creation myths say that a god named Amma made the female Earth from a ball of clay. When he wanted to have intercourse with her, an anthill — the Earth's clitoris — rose in self-protection. Amma was furious and cut it off.

And so it came to be that women members of a caste known as Blacksmiths still do excisions while most Mali men refuse to marry a woman who has not been excised: they say these women are too headstrong, too independent, unclean.

Religion plays a part in these discussions as well.

Even though there is nothing about female excision in the Koran, imams regularly denounce women who want to put an end to the practice, saying they are not good Muslims. Traditional Dogon priests called Marabouts do the same.

Stick with tradition, they say, the ancestors knew best.

They are powerful voices, powerful agents against change. These are the people Fifi has to go up against.

As recently as the late 1990s, as much as 90 per cent of Mali women had undergone female excision, according to UN studies. (David Gutnick/CBC)

The Mali government

Joséphine Traoré-Keita is a doctor who used to treat a constant stream of girls mutilated by knives and razor blades.

It was depressing work and it made her angry. She left the front lines of medical practice and became the director of the Malian government's anti-excision agency.  

Officially, Dr. Traoré-Keita has state support. The Malian government proudly signs international human rights treaties and conventions on women's health and protection.

But unofficially it is more complicated: Dr. Traoré -Keita knows of government ministers who publicly oppose excisions and then send their daughters to be cut.

"People call me all sorts of names," she says. "They say that someone is pulling my strings. Lots of powerful imams and most men want excision to continue."

A further complication is that Mali has not outlawed excision as many neighbouring countries have.

"How could we apply a law" asks Traoré-Keita. "Because if it is the mother-in-law or the sister-in-law who takes a girl to be excised, there is no way that anyone is going to turn a relative into the police.

"It's not that we are against a law. But unless it can be applied, it just won't work.

David Gutnick with Maimouna, head of the women's committee in Kounooujouloumo. (CBC)

The Blacksmiths

Lafia Tamboura used to welcome girls to her home.  She led them through the pre-excision rituals where singing and clapping filled the air.  

Girls would line up. And one by one they would take their turn lying down on a straw mat in a far corner. That was then.

Now there's just a pile of broken bricks and a rusting hunk of scrap metal on the ground where excisions were done. Lafia is one of Fifi's success stories.

It took many long conversations but Fifi persuaded Lafia the Blacksmith to put away her blade.

Lafia used to make enough money from her work to buy roasted goat meat whenever she wanted it; she wore expensive jewelry and the best cotton boubous.  

But when she joined Fifi's campaign, her privileged status evaporated. So did her income.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition . Over the past 20 years he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. Last summer he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

To make money she opened a restaurant in the courtyard. But there are rarely customers at her three tables. She has had to sell off her fancy necklaces and her money will run out this spring.

Prospective clients keep asking when Lafia the Blacksmith will pick up her sacred knife once again. So Fifi has to find a solution soon and she knows it.  

"Here in Bandiagara we have helped six excisionists become female entrepreneurs. A couple have started restaurants, a couple more sell homemade soap and other local products.

"But we have to support them. Without enough support they just go back to their old ways. They have to eat."

A bumpy journey

In central Mali, there are few roads and the fields are strewn with rocks. Fifi and her staff get around on motorcycles to reach the 97 villages that they have targeted.

Thousands of bumpy journeys and community meetings are paying off — the Blacksmiths have fewer and fewer clients.

And here in Kounooujouloumo, a village with no well and no road or electricity, the Blacksmiths have no more clients at all.

The men know that when Fifi comes they are expected to be present at a village meeting held under the shade of a giant baobab tree.

The head of the women's committee is in her 70s, a great-grandmother in a frilly pink dress named Maimouna.

One of Fifi's assistants with the life-sized pelvis used to explain the health problems surrounding excision. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Of the age-old tradition of excision, Maimouna says, "Fifi has taught us that it causes infections and bleeding. We have to admit our mothers and our grandmothers were wrong. And so were the men."

A mother nursing a baby girl says her daughter will never know the pain of excision. Thanks to you, she says to Fifi, the next generation of girls will be lucky. They will never know what it's like to walk for hours in pain to get to the hospital because a baby can't come out.

Some things can change

In her visit, Fifi opens her backpack and carefully pulls out a life-size pelvis. It's used to show what a healthy woman's body looks like, as well as a mutilated one.

Everyone — including a couple of shy teenage boys — takes a close look. No one seems embarrassed. This pelvis has been handed around in Kounooujouloumo many times before.  

"Men had better watch out now," says a woman, "because young girls are healthy and strong and someday one of them might want to become the village chief."

The chief grins, shakes his head and touches his white cap. He says that some things will never change.

But some things can and the chief knows it.

"Guinea worm is gone," he says. "AIDS might be next. It will be better for everyone when excision disappears, too. Fifi is like our mother. She's brought good changes to Kounooujouloumo and that makes me very happy."

Fifi thanks everyone for showing up when they had so much other important work to do.

"Not until we created this safe space, not until we were able to bring different generations together were we able to be together to talk about excision," she says. "I think its possible that if we can continue we will be able to do it all over Mali".

Then the women of Kounooujouloumo surround Fifi.

Honoured visitors are sent off with music in their ears. It is supposed to soften the hard roads ahead.