By Dennis Kabatto – Sierra Leonean-American medical anthropologist, Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD is calling for an end to what she describes as Zero Tolerance Propaganda Campaigns.
Dr. Ahmadu made the pronouncement on Friday, February 5 a day ahead of the United Nations (UN) 13th anniversary of International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
She said a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicating female circumcision in the USA has more than double is spurious.
The UN describes FGM as a procedure that alters or injures the female genitalia for non medical reasons, a practice recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The UN has a “specific target” in its Sustainable Development Goals to wipe out the practice by 2030.
In a recent interview, Dr. Ahmadu discussed the repercussions of a recent ban of female circumcision in Gambia, West Africa and she explicitly took to task activists who she said are campaigning for anti-FGM legislations only for personal financial gains among other things.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Congratulations, you recently participated on BBC television show Hardtalk, what was it all about?
I was invited by the producers of Hardtalk to come by the studio and take part in a discussion on what I refer to as female circumcision alongside Nimco Ali, a campaigner against what she and other opponents call FGM. It was very intense but I think enlightening for a lot of viewers who never once thought there was another side to “FGM”. Interested readers can view the 24 minute show here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV6UfEaZHBE).
How will the Zero Tolerance for FGM Act of 2015 impact the traditional practice of female circumcision in America?
Traditional female circumcision is virtually unheard of today in America. Anti-FGM activists manufacture the most outrageous statistics on the risk of FGM in the U.S. as well as unfounded claims regarding an underground trafficking of girls from the U.S. to Africa for “vacation cutting”. Mainstream media outlets clearly do not feel obligated to do simple fact checking or due diligence when it comes to such reports. Twenty plus years ago, there were some African immigrant women who were keen on maintaining this aspect of their culture and the few that were able to financially and logistically would take their daughters to their home countries in Africa for female initiation or female circumcision. This is what happened in my case but it was a rare occurrence in our communities even then.
Although FGM is banned in the United States, a new CDC report released in January says the number of women and girls in USA at risk of FGM have tripled over the last 25 years, is that a victory for African Women Are Free to Choose (AWAFC)?
The recent CDC report that over 500,000 girls are at risk of FGM in the US is completely and I believe deliberately misleading. The purpose is to provide for the anti-FGM NGO, Equality Now, the data it needs to bolster its lobbying efforts to pass the Zero Tolerance for Anti-FGM Act of 2015, which will guarantee allocation of funds and resources towards Director Shelby Quast’s inflated income and other activities in the U.S. In other words, Equality Now, wants money and will stop at nothing to get it.
All the experts I know submitted their concerns about the methods being used by CDC to calculate FGM risk and the initial report’s gross exaggeration of these figures. The numbers used by the CDC are based on African women who are already circumcised, the prevalence of the practice in their countries of origin and the erroneous assumption that they will circumcise their daughters when they immigrate to the US. There is no evidence to substantiate the assumptions that are made. Further, this report is ultimately attributing a priori criminality to certain groups of African women and advocating for a dangerous form of racial or ethnic profiling targeting African and Muslim communities. We intend to make our concerns about this CDC report known to anti-FGM activists, the mainstream media, policymakers and all relevant stakeholders in the U.S. administration as well as within our own communities.
I’m not sure what you mean by whether this is a victory of AWAFC. We are not here to spread female circumcision in the US or anywhere in the world. Our key mission is to create awareness about the negative psychosocial and psychosexual impact of harmful anti-FGM campaigns, legislation and global policies. AWAFC is also concerned with creating dialogue on ways to preserve the rights of all affected adult women and adolescent girls to their own bodies, to self-determination and to equality with other adult women and adolescent girls worldwide.
What is your reaction to Gambia’s recent ban of FGM? What are the implications for people who practice the tradition in that country?
I believe President Yayah Jammeh had his reasons for taking such a surprise and potentially unpopular decision in a country where the vast majority of women are circumcised and celebrate this tradition in large, open initiation ceremonies. President Jammeh is a shrewd and savvy quasi dictator. He is well aware that Gambian women in western countries can apply for and receive automatic asylum on gender based violence claims with respect to FGM. This recent executive decision has effectively closed the door to his most vocal critics and opponents in the UK and US. I also lean on believing his sincerity when he says this practice is not sanctioned by Islam and that he is genuinely concerned about the health implications for girls and women. There’s a lot of ignorance and misinformation about the varied forms of female circumcision in relation to Islam as well as well purported health and sexual outcomes. Most people, like President Jammeh, are regrettably misled by the media and activist led anti-FGM propaganda. AWAFC was created to end this insidious disinformation and to hold the media and anti-FGM activists accountable for what they print, say and do.
As far as implications for the practice – an important Senegambian study funded by UNICEF clearly indicated that the law has little effect on the practice because it is driven underground. A Gambian friend recently told me that what we will see is an end to the open celebrations (similar to what is happening now in Kenya) but the operations will continue. This most certainly means that girls will be circumcised at younger and younger ages and that their health and lives will be at the mercy of greedy quacks instead of highly trained traditional circumcisers or medical practitioners.
UNICEF estimates 24 out of 29 countries where FGM is practiced have passed laws against it, do you think it would be outlawed in Sierra Leone?
Absolutely not and we will certainly lobby hard against this new form of neocolonialism in Sierra Leone. What is the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) going to do, lock up 80% of the population of women? Are the predominantly male policemen going to arrest their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and so on? The Minister of Gender and Social Welfare, Hon. Moijueh Kaikai, stated unequivocally to a group of Soweis (the women leaders in charge of traditional female initiation and circumcision) that Bondo will not be banned in Sierra Leone. Bondo is the local term for female circumcision. However, the GoSL appears to be ambivalent about its position and intentions, but my hope is President Ernest Bai Koroma will continue to listen to the voices of grassroots women who make up the bulk of voters in the country. We are officially launching AWAFC in Freetown very soon and we intend to work closely with GoSL on a way forward that will advance and protect the rights of all women and girls on both sides of this issue. Western orchestrated anti-FGM laws have had no impact on a practice that dates back thousands of years. We have seen that in those countries in Africa that have passed such laws.
While our African governments are busy succumbing to pressure from western women to outlaw our traditional female genital aesthetic practices, western countries have developed a flourishing female genital cosmetic surgery industry, using our own operations as the aesthetic standard. And, instead of fighting to defend the rights of our mothers and grandmothers, many of us who are western educated have given carte blanche for them to be stripped, degraded and punished by and for the sake of the very white women whose own mothers and daughters are now freely opting for the same procedures. I have always said, Sierra Leone is the ground zero where modern western feminism meets the power of ancient Bondo society. As you can see, I’ve placed my bets on Bondo!