“As long as men demand circumcised women, there will be circumcised women and mothers to support them. » These powerful words are not spoken by an activist against female genital mutilation (FGM), but by a man. Babacar Sy is 46 years old. He is a social worker in Kolda, Casamance, in the south of Senegal: “In this difficult fight, you have to target men, because they are the ones who have the decision-making power, they who preside over the ceremonies, even if it is the women who make the gesture. »
Babacar Sy has been working with young people on sexual and reproductive health issues for fifteen years, informing, explaining, supporting boys and girls so that they understand what exactly is meant when we talk about “harmful practices”. But also so that they come into full possession of their bodies at the dawn of adulthood. Let a space be opened for “questioning toxic social norms. Most of the time, it is through ignorance that these practices continue. Young girls do not know why they chain infections, pain, even before having started their sex life “, explains the professional. His commitment became a vocation at the age of 28, when he had to take care of a young girl who had been disabled by excision for life. “I accompanied her on the road to reconstruction. Today, she has a job and she is independent. She marked me a lot. In the field, the mission becomes personal, you burn to show how resilient women are. »
For Brehima Ballo, “ it was seeing one of my circumcised cousins bleed a lot and suffer so much that I understood that this practice brought nothing to the woman, except trouble”. This 48-year-old Malian created and directs the Association for the monitoring and orientation of traditional practices (Amsopt) and works in partnership with the French NGO EquiPop, with which he runs programs in Mali and Burkina Faso. “It was during my university studies that I became interested in sexual health. I understood that I wanted to change things. Raise taboos in communities. It’s a really strong challenge. »
Babacar Sy and Brehima Ballo are part of this generation of men whose outlook has changed on the relationship between men and women, on the conditioning to be deconstructed which no longer finds justification in tradition or religion. In addition to the daily work of social services dependent on the ministries of health of African countries, where men find their place year after year, the joint program of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Unicef has supported more than 3,000 male activist initiatives over the past five years to advocate for zero tolerance.
A ground swell that is based on an astonishing observation. While acts of mutilation persist almost everywhere on the continent, the majority of men are opposed to them. In Ethiopia, for example, one of the three countries where the female circumcision rate is the highest along with Egypt and Somalia, 87% of men said they were against it, according to a UNICEF analysis highlighted February 6, the International Day dedicated to the fight against FGM.
What seems like a paradox in these countries where between 85% and 98% of the female population has undergone partial or total excision of the clitoris, the labia majora, sometimes with fibulation – which consists of sewing the labia minora together – could turn out to be one of the most powerful levers to relegate it to the dustbin of history. “It’s a long battle, recalls Julie Dubois, child protection specialist within the UNFPA-UNICEF program launched in 2008. But this strategy, combined with raising awareness among young girls and mothers, is bearing fruit. In twenty years, the risk for girls of being exposed has been divided by three. »
If we take a closer look at the figures, we see a clear downward trend for the 15-19 year old generation. Ethiopia is making real progress with a drop in the prevalence rate from 79% to 47% in 2016 in this age group. Ditto for Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan, Burkina, Mauritania and Liberia.
But resistance is tenacious and economic crises, political instability, conflicts, population displacements, pandemics that destabilize social structures and health relays hamper advocacy actions.
Brehima Ballo knows something about it. On the ground, its social and health action continues, but the militant struggle has stalled. His association Amsopt is waging a battle against the Malian State, signatory, like 48 other countries on the continent, of the Maputo Protocol (2003-2005), an ambitious text from the African Union (AU) relating to human rights which guarantees the physical integrity of women and the fight against FGM. “This is a supranational law that Mali has ratified, explains Brehima Ballo. Faced with the failure of discussions to accelerate the eradication of these harmful practices to which the State has committed, in 2020 we lodged a complaint with the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of African States. West for “failure to protect his children and non-compliance with the Protocol”. But ECOWAS excluded Mali from its ranks after the two coups of 2020 and 2021. The cause of women is therefore suspended until democracy returns to our country”he laments.
A trend towards the medicalization of FMGs is also observed, particularly in Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Djibouti, Kenya and Nigeria, where one in ten girls has been circumcised by a health professional. “When the gesture takes place in the hospital, as is the case in Egypt, explains Julie Dubois, it is much more difficult to eradicate it, because the families take shelter behind the carer, guarantor of relative health security. They are convinced that they are not taking any risks for their child. »
Worse, the gesture is practiced earlier and earlier, as in Côte d’Ivoire, yet one of the West African champions of the fight with prevalence rates of 36.7% (15-49 years) and 10 .9% (0 to 14 years): “Many states on the continent have passed laws that punish perpetrators of FGM with years of imprisonment and fines. It’s a good thing, but you don’t change the mentalities of an entire population by repressing, analyzes Ghislain Coulibaly, founder and president of the Network of men committed to gender equality in Côte d’Ivoire. The tireless activist helped shape her country’s National Women’s Empowerment Strategy. This results in reinforcing the culture of secrecy that we are fighting against and we see babies circumcised in the cradle, during welcoming ceremonies in the community. »
“Also talking about sexuality”
The sociologist, like all he for she (men committed to equality), is convinced that only pedagogy brings out new social norms developed by the communities themselves. In village and neighborhood talks, the issue of women’s health brought everyone together. “It is the most effective argument, testifies the Senegalese Babacar Sy. It takes time to prepare an audience, to talk about anatomy and the serious consequences of female circumcision. But when we feel that the room is ready, we show them photos and videos, they hear the words of the women themselves. At that time, people are touched in their flesh and many cry, even the men. It is only in this way that an entire community comes to publicly declare the abandonment of excision. »
“The Africa World”
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In support of this demonstration, the traditional and religious leaders, Muslims as well as Catholics, are becoming more involved in the struggle. Like the Djigui La Grande Espérance Foundation, created twenty years ago by the Ivorian imam Cissé Djiguiba who travels the region and TV shows to convince that these practices have nothing to do with Islam or impurity. assumed to be women. “Today we work together, rejoices Ghislain Coulibaly. As long as women continue to be victims of all this violence, the whole country is the loser, including economically. »
An argument that is also gaining ground with political decision-makers and was assessed by the World Bank in 2018 in its report “And if development were a woman”. For this country alone, the second richest in West Africa, the loss of income due to inequality amounts to between 6 and 8 billion dollars each year.
But the sign that a profound change is underway are these evils still timidly exchanged in the intimacy of discussion groups. “Men now also come to talk about their sexuality. Of the disarray they experience in the face of the suffering of their wife. It’s still a taboo subject, but the men who get involved also do it because they want to put an end to misfortune.” explains Babacar Sy. “The couple’s health, pleasure, pain, fulfilment, prejudices fall when dialogue takes hold”concludes the Malian Brehima Ballo.