End FGM: give girls a chance to decide their own destiny

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As MEPs decide on the short-list for the Sakharov prize, Assita Kanko explains her nomination of ‘The Restorers’, a group of Kenyan students working to help victims and potential victims of Female Genital Mutilation.

Assita Kanko is a Belgian MEP

Today, MEPs of the joint Foreign Affairs and Development Committees, together with the Human Rights Subcommittee, voted on the finalists for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. I nominated, on behalf of the ECR Group, ‘The Restorers’. They are a group of Kenyan students who have developed a mobile phone app aiming to help victims or potential victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The hope is that the app will allow girls to decide their own destinies. Moreover, our hope goes beyond the app: recognizing this act of hope and self-determination will also push the emancipation of girls on the global agenda and encourage such initiatives.

Their battle against FGM throws me back to a train journey from Brussels to Paris, nearly twelve months ago. I was thinking about my upcoming appointment with Pierre Foldès, a physician with a practice in the Parisian suburbs. He helps women who have been subjected to FGM and has developed a method to surgically repair the damage caused by the circumcision of women.

When he was sent to rural Burkina Faso as a young physician, he took to heart the plight of the circumcised women who solicited his help. “I had no idea how to help them, and there was hardly any academic literature on the clitoris, that most sensitive of organs in a woman’s body. So I conducted my own research and eventually found a solution.” A few years later he returned to Burkina Faso and in 1978 – seven years before I was born – he operated on his first patient.

On the train, I wondered what I should tell the doctor: why did I make an appointment? What he might tell me makes my stomach churn. I have been evading this truth for so many years. I know he will explain to me in medical terms what had been done to me. Ever since I was five, this has been my only reality. I’ve been living in this body that was forced upon me for so long that I have learned to love it and stand up for it. When I was five years old, I was subjected to an act of unspeakable violence, which I will never be able to forget. It motivated me to campaign to protect girls from this barbaric procedure. But what exactly did they excise, what part of my body is no longer mine?

Ever since that day, a part of my body has been permanently unknown to me. If you cut away part of a girl’s life, part of her stops growing. Her sexual life develops differently to that of other girls. Part of her never reaches maturity, because it’s simply absent. She needs to learn and build her self-confidence. On one hand, I can’t stand the idea of not knowing exactly what they did to me, although at the same time I’m not sure I want to know. However, I wanted to understand the current situation in Europe, where 500,000 mutilated women are living, and thousands of little girls are at risk of being circumcised.

The stigma of oppression

A few hours later, after having examined me, Dr. Pierre Foldès’ tells me: “You were subjected to type II genital mutilation with infibulation, as your labia have been excised. A scar tissue has developed, as a result. You will never be able to give birth in the normal way.”

I want to flee from the words of the physician echoing in my mind and at the same time I want to keep hearing them: perhaps then I will understand what I’m feeling. “I can restore what they have done to you, quite soon even. But the decision is up to you.”

We made an appointment for December 14. “Bring someone to accompany you. After the operation you’ll have difficulty walking, and you’ll be in pain.” I remember as a kid of 5, after the mutilation, I walked home…At age 38 I was a scarred adult in his office. I had finally allowed the pain to be. I could no longer hide from it.

I am told that Dr. Foldès has already performed this operation on 6,000 women. All of these women have chosen to erase the stigma of oppression that marked their childhood. The majority were mutilated before reaching the age of 15. In most cases, they were forced to suffer the cruel ritual in preparation for a premature marriage.

Now that I know the details of what happened to me, I feel much better. Nevertheless, I did not go to Saint-Germain-en-Laye on December 14 to have Dr. Foldès perform the operation on me. For the time being I don’t feel strong enough yet to undergo the procedure. On 14th of December, instead of going to Dr. Foldès, I decided to run for European Parliament and support womens rights. I want to fight back on a larger scale against the violence that women are subjected to in all domains. This is also partly my way of regaining confidence in myself. Still, 200 million women and girls have been forcibly subjected to the traumatizing practice of FGM. Half a million of these women live in the European Union. According to the latest figures, huge numbers of girls are still at risk of being circumcised. Even in my country, Belgium, 8,600 girls are still at risk of being mutilated.

We have to stop Female Genital Mutilation. We must be those who stand up for girls who are crying for help. We must even be ready to act before they start crying.

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