Martha, Tanzania and Adama, US
For Adama, the worst thing about being cut was the betrayal. Her own mother - the one person who was meant to protect her more than anyone else - had allowed her to be irreversibly mutilated.
Adama was a child and living in The Gambia when her aunt and mother secretly arranged for her to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a procedure involving the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.
“What happened to me took away my trust in my mother,” says Adama. “I was seven years old, but I still remember everything.
“My father was away traveling and my aunt used this as an opportunity. She and my mother knew my father was against FGM. The night it happened, we walked for around two miles until we came to a gathering of people. There were lots of girls I didn’t recognize and many strangers that I never saw again. The only person I knew was my aunt, who held my back. My mother had told me nothing before I went so I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t understand that it was FGM but I knew that it hurt.”
FGM is usually carried out on girls between infancy and the age of 15 and can have serious lifelong consequences for the victim. It is typically performed without anesthetic, using unsterilized equipment such as a razor, knife, or glass.
In many cultures, like Adama’s, FGM is rationalized as a rite of passage into womanhood. But in reality, it is a human rights violation, and an extreme form of violence used to control female sexuality.
“FGM is not just about cutting the clitoris, it is about suppression, control, and indoctrination,” says Adama. “When you cut me, you are telling me that I cannot enjoy my sexuality. It is totally wrong.”
Now 23 and living in the US, Adama is a United Nations youth advisor and part of a vibrant youth movement committed to the UN’s Global Goal of ending FGM by 2030. She believes that the best way to achieve this goal is through education.
“In as much as we hate FGM, the truth is, it is a deep-rooted cultural practice which has been passed on from generation to generation,” she says. “For us to succeed in our endeavors, we need to educate the masses on this issue. This way we are not only creating awareness on the dangers of FGM but giving women and girls around the world the right to have a say about their bodies.”
While it took a long time, Adama says she has now forgiven her mother for facilitating her own experience of FGM.
“I used to be very angry,” she says. “I felt [my mother] was a very weak woman, she got carried away with cultural norms and didn’t stick up for her own children. But I now know that people need help and education to understand that FGM is wrong. Mothers must be empowered to speak up against it, and parents who have protected their daughters need to be given the opportunity to share their stories.
“The goal should be to understand each other. That’s the only way we will end FGM in a generation.”
“In our culture, they say if you do not cut the girl, they will not stay with their husband,” says 59-year-old Martha from Northern Tanzania.
Although today Martha is an activist and anti-FGM campaigner, for many years she worked as a ‘cutter’ - performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on young girls in her community.
Involving the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia, FGM is usually carried out on girls between infancy and the age of 15 and can have serious lifelong consequences.
“I started working as a cutter when I was around 30 years old,” says Martha. “It is hard to count how many girls I cut in total.”
In the Kilimanjaro region where Martha grew up, FGM is associated with deep-rooted religious and cultural beliefs held by the Maasai people, and the cutting ritual has been performed for generations. Girls undergoing FGM are expected to not show any sign of fear during the agonizing ritual, which often takes place in front of a crowd as part of a coming-of-age celebration.
Martha had been cut herself at the age of 14, in preparation for her marriage the following year.
“At that time, it was mandatory for all girls to be cut before marriage,” she explains. “I was happy for it to happen because I wanted to get married.
“I had seen others being cut so I knew what to expect. It was very painful, and I was told to stay still and not complain, otherwise I would be known as a coward. It hurt for an entire month, and I was not allowed outside for three months, but I had no choice, I just had to persevere.”
Despite her own painful experience, when Martha was selected by the elder women in her community to become a cutter, she gladly accepted the role.
“Our community valued the cutters, especially the ones who did the cutting well and so the girls did not get sick afterward,” she says.
It was not until years later when Martha attended a training course run by the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM), a local organization working in partnership with Equality Now, that she learned about the dangers of FGM and began to question the practice.
“Since I got training from NAFGEM, I’ve learned a lot and have come to hate FGM,” says Martha. “Now when we meet as women I tell them the consequences of cutting. I go to schools to talk to teachers, and I tell students to resist being cut.”
Thanks in part to training programs like the one offered by NAFGEM and Equality Now, rates of FGM are declining - a 2013 UNICEF report found that girls in Tanzania aged 15-19 were three times less likely to have been cut than women aged 45-49.
But with three million girls across Africa thought to be at risk every year, FGM remains a significant problem. Laws against the practice can help, but only if they are enforced.
“The law has helped reduce the rate of cutting because people fear being arrested,” says Martha. “But many want to carry on and would continue if it wasn’t banned.”
Martha says that her own changed views about FGM have been met with resistance in some parts of the community.
“There are those who hate me because I have taken a stand against it,” she says. “But because I now know the effects of FGM, I cannot stop fighting.”