Sally Dibba, a survivor of type III Female Genital Mutilation locally known as sealing, has told The Standard newspaper that the practice has put her through the most painful experience, adding that it has changed her life forever.
By Mustapha K Darboe
Dibba, 23, is a native of Farafenni, a booming market town lying on the Trans-Gambia Highway in the North Bank Region, just south of the border with Senegal – about 105 kilometres from Banjul, the capital of The Gambia.
She could not though remember the age at which she was sealed but revealed that she was taken to a circumciser while she was under her grandmother’s care.
“When I was married off at the age of 19, my husband could not have s** with me the first night because he could not penetrate me. It was very painful and frustrating for him and I. I called and told my parents about it and they asked me to go the following morning…My parents did not even know I was sealed because I was taken to a circumciser by my grandmother. I was then taken to a circumciser who removed the seal with a new razor blade at around 8pm and I was not given any anaesthetic. I started crying but they had to place something on my mouth so that I would not attract attention from people in the neighbourhood,” she said.
“I was then taken to my husband. The wound was fresh and my husband insisted he was not going to do it with me. I had to beg him – though it was going to be even more painful for me but we were told it would seal itself if we didn’t do it. My husband was very sympathetic because I was bleeding and in pain after I had been torn by that circumciser. I was though ready to bear the pain. I had to go through two terrible pains – it was nothing closer to any pain I had experienced before in my life. And I lived with the pain continuously for about two weeks before the wound healed.”
Dibba and her husband are now divorced and she would not say if FGM has played any role in it but her story, apparently, is one too many.
Saikou Manneh, 30, a native of Salikenni in the North Bank Region, said such bitter experiences are widespread among women in The Gambia.
Manneh told The Standard that his wife also experienced similar pain, adding that his sister went through the same difficult experience in her first month with her husband.
“This is seen as a normal thing. I know several people who went through it but they are shy to discuss it with even friends,” he said.
Moreover, Dr Hassan Azadeh, a prominent gynaecologist and a lecturer at the University of The Gambia who has been investigating the effects of FGM on Gambian women for close to two decades, told The Standard that he had “delivered women whose delivery had been made difficult because of FGM”.
A doctor at Lamtoro Clinic, one of the best private clinics in The Gambia, Dr Azadeh said FGM type I and II which are practised in the country and defended by some religious scholars as the ones endorsed by the Prophet Muhammad is in itself “harmful to women”.
“It is total rubbish in the opinion of a medical doctor to defend FGM on claims that it can be done moderately. The people who are talking about doing FGM moderately (mild) do not know a thing about the anatomy of a woman. FGM removes the healthy organs of the female genitalia and it is not based on any medical advice. I do hear people saying you can do FGM moderately but it is not true,” he said.
“In The Gambia, we come across types I and II which we call clitoridectomy (mild). Type I and II, they cut the top of the genital away and the remaining scar tissue in the area but the victim can still be able to have a contact with a man. When they also get pregnant, with the help of a doctor, they can also deliver.”
Azadeh also said FGM can cause “severe bleeding, shock and infection and one in thousand of these children die immediately”, adding that women who go through FGM could also develop fistula and serious complications during delivery.
Dibba was no exception to such complications at birth.
As if those weeks of nightmares she has experienced with her husband in their marriage were not enough, Dibba was going to relive the whole pain when she was delivering of her baby girl at the hospital.
The pain, she said, still haunts her.
“I was also torn when I was giving birth to my baby girl and the pain still haunts me from time to time. Anytime I hear that my friends have a baby; it reminds me of my experience. The most painful experience of my life is FGM,” she said.
Though Dr Azadeh said survivors of FGM can give birth when assisted by a medical practitioner but according to the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) released barely three months ago, about 37 percent of births in The Gambia happen at home while 63 percent happen in a health facility.
This, activists argue, could put a sizeable number of FGM survivors at risk of serious complications when giving births at home.
Dr Abucacarr Jah, a urologist working at the Sharab Medical Centre, also told The Standard that FGM does result in death of babies and women in the country.
“Female circumcision in a woman is equivalent to cutting whole or half of the man’s private part. We see women die in hospital because they can’t deliver and we also see women having torn their private parts because they just can’t stretch during delivery as a result of scar tissue left on them after FGM,” he said.
“We also see babies die because of prolong labour. These are all causes of FGM – why shouldn’t we stop?”
Women cutters or circumcisers in The Gambia hardly talk about FGM openly but Lisa Fatty, Bakau, in her late 40s, said no amount of money or advice can entice her to drop her knife.
“People who are saying that women who went through female circumcision find it difficult to give birth because they develop scars around their genitalia are lying. I have gone through FGM myself and I have not found it difficult to give birth. In Fact, people who do not go through female circumcision go through pain when giving birth,” she said.
“I have been cutting girls for a long time now. This has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors and it is our tradition. I have never heard that someone died as a result of female circumcision and even if someone dies during the practice, it must be that time has come for that person to die. And death is something that every man will taste, even those that are not circumcised.”
She vowed that she “will not support any government decision to ban FGM and even if that happens, it will not stop me from practising it – I will do circumcision as long as I live.”
Female circumcision season usually comes in December when The Gambia is experiencing cold weather and Lisa said they will be cutting another batch of girls during the course of the month.
She, however, said she does not practise sealing, saying it is “harmful”.
According to the DHS survey, the FGM prevalence rate in The Gambia between women age 15- 49 is at 75 percent, 1 percent lower than the previous statistics reported by the MICS survey done by the Gambia Bureau of Statistics in 2010.
The survey also reported that the type of circumcision in 85 percent of the women interviewed during the course of the research involved “cutting and removal of the flesh” while less than 1 percent reported they were cut but no flesh was removed.
However, the survey also revealed that majority of women interviewed (65 percent) believe that the practice should continue while 33 percent said it should not.
In a 12-page report published July 27 on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), has asked the Government of The Gambia to criminalise female genital mutilation.
However, the Government has not shown readiness to outlaw the practice and the Minority Leader of the National Assembly, Samba Jallow, and told The Standard that they (lawmakers) will not outlaw the practice because it is still popular among their electorates.
Dr Abubacarr Jah also said the culture of conformity, religious justifications and the deeply rooted tradition behind FGM make it a difficult harmful practice to eradicate in the Gambian society.
For protection, we used pseudo names for case sources used in this story.
The Standard newspaper production