Senegal: Activism resulted in female genital mutilation being outlawed in Senegal in the late 1990s, but the custom persists.

LA Times
Senegal makes progress against female genital excision, but the practice, also called mutilation, is still common in Africa and parts of Asia.
When Oureye Sall walked through her village in years past, young girls would flee in silent panic at the sight of her face. She was the cutter.
She inherited the trade from her mother and made a tidy profit: a dollar per operation for the practice known locally as "cleaning," and in much of the rest of the world as female genital circumcision, or mutilation.

Sall broke each razor blade in two for economy's sake and used each half until it was too blunt to cut properly. Sometimes she did 15 or 20 operations a day, other times two or three. She has no idea how many girls she cut in her decades-long career. "Of course the girls would fight," she said of the procedure, in which she sliced off the external sexual organs. "Of course they would hit you. They would cry, they would kick. But you'd have three good strong women to help you. Someone had to actually sit on each leg and someone had to control the arms and upper body. We would cover their mouths. You don't want the neighbors to hear."

'Fear and alarm'

Isa Toutouri was 9 when her time came. She almost bled to death. "You can imagine your heart beating so strongly from fear and alarm, just before they come over and hold you down, said the 40-year-old, who lives in a village called Keur Omar Bambara. "You cannot imagine the terror when they just hold you down, without even touching you yet."

Sall says that when she cut the girls, sometimes the mothers would inspect their daughters and say it wasn't "clean" enough. More must be excised. Or sometimes a girl would bleed so much that she would pass out, and Sall would slap her face and call out prayers. She claims she never lost any.

The story of how the cutter changed her mind and gave up her work tells of how a few hopeful seeds blew across Senegal, ushering in a revolutionary social change that had eluded Western agencies for decades. With the help of a U.S. humanitarian agency named Tostan, Sall and others are campaigning to wipe out female genital excision in a single generation, much as China abandoned foot-binding.

Sall began attending classes for villagers on health, human rights and literacy, organized by Tostan, which means "breakthrough." Women at the classes began voicing concerns that the operation Sall performed was harmful or dangerous, but she didn't stop. She was convinced that critics of the long-standing rite were jealous of the money she made from the business.

Yet there was a pricking doubt. To reassure herself, she went to a religious teacher, looking to confirm her belief that the practice was required by Islam. He said it was not.

"In that moment I looked back with so much regret at all the girls whom I had harmed and asked God to forgive me," she said. There seemed only one hope of redemption for all the pain and suffering she had caused: She joined the campaign to wipe out the practice.

Since the 1950s, the United Nations has opposed female genital excision as an abuse of human rights, yet more than half a century later, the World Health Organization and many other humanitarian agencies have failed to make much headway in eliminating the practice in Africa. According to a 2005 UNICEF report, as many as 3 million girls are cut each year in 28 African and Middle Eastern countries. In some countries, such as Guinea, Sudan and Somalia, 90% to 99% of the population practices it.

There are varying degrees of excision. In Senegal, some communities remove the clitoris, others all external organs. If men marry women of other ethnic groups that do not practice female excision, their wives are shunned. No one will sit near them, talk to them, eat their food or drink the water they fetch. Villagers will walk away when they approach, sometimes complaining loudly of a bad smell. Sall once cut a woman, about 30, who was so desperate for acceptance that she was willing to go through the excruciating pain.

The day the country outlawed the practice in the late 1990s, Sall cut 15 girls.

Story by Robyn Dixon

23 March, 2007