The perspective often missing in the debate regarding female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful traditional practice involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitals, is the voice of African youth. My recent experience conducting human rights workshops at schools in the Kambia District of northern Sierra Leone, a West African country where 90% of women have undergone FGM as children, underscores the need to focus on the viewpoints of Africa's youth regarding the practice.
I witnessed hundreds of Sierra Leonean students in sweltering lecture halls and classrooms highlight FGM's physical, sexual, and mental consequences. The workshops were a clarion call from Sierra Leonean youth to end the practice of FGM.
I conducted the workshops in partnership with seasoned Sierra Leonean activists from the anti-FGM organization Centre for Safe Motherhood Youth and Child Outreach ("CESMYCO") but still assumed it would to be difficult for students to speak openly about FGM. But they were eager and willing to discuss the practice.
My partners and I commenced each workshop by asking students to identify traditional practices that affect girls in their communities. We avoided any direct mention of FGM so that the students could initiate the discussion themselves. Almost immediately, and without hesitation, students raised the issue of FGM.
At the Kambia Islamic Secondary School, students highlighted FGM's harmful medical effects. They eagerly raised their hands to note that FGM can "expose girls to disease" due to the re-use of unsanitary razor blades, cause uncontrollable bleeding, have a "negative effect on giving birth," and even result in death.
When students raised the issue of FGM's health consequences, we asked how many students knew a girl who had died after undergoing FGM. Without fail, a flurry of hands would reach for the sky.
At the Madina Secondary School, a student confidently noted that she disagreed with FGM because it "can remove healthy organs." This statement was an insightful repudiation of FGM proponents who argue that female genital cutting and male circumcision are synonymous. They erroneously equate the clitoris, which is indeed a genital organ, with the foreskin of the penis. The correct male equivalent of FGM would be penile amputation.
The students also bravely referred to FGM's negative effects on healthy female sexual functioning. A student at the Kambia Islamic Secondary School stated that she disagreed with FGM because "it decreases sexual urge." At the Federation Junior Secondary School another student shyly said that she objected to the practice because "girls lose feeling." At the Kolenten Senior Secondary School one student boldly stated that FGM "can hurt the child physically and mentally because the clitoris is a sensitive organ connected to the mind." I was deeply impressed with their sophisticated notion of the physical and psychological layers of female sexuality.
The complicated effect of FGM on female sexuality is an often-marginalized aspect of the FGM debate. When I first met Sierra Leonean activist and CESMYCO director Laurel Bangura, who conducted the school workshops with me, she spoke openly about FGM's negative effects on female sexuality. Too often this focus is dismissed as a Western preoccupation. I remember Laurel speaking movingly about the older Sierra Leonean women who had undergone FGM in their girlhoods and still mourn the loss of a part of their sexual lives.
The students who raised the issue of sexuality were making a salient and oft-ignored point - they are forced to undergo a practice that has negative effects on their future sexual functioning at ages when they have no choice in the matter.
In addition to highlighting FGM's physical, mental and sexual effects, the students were also very concerned with FGM's impact on girls' access to education. In Sierra Leone, and in other African countries, FGM "fleeing" stories are common. Young girls who fear the practice will sometimes flee their villages - acts of courage that often disrupt their education. Several years ago, while working on my first FGM project in Sierra Leone, I met a group of young sisters who had fled their village in Magburaka to escape FGM. High-ranking FGM initiators had attempted to force the girls to undergo FGM and begin training to become FGM initiators, which would have halted the girls' formal education. To avoid this fate, the sisters ran away from their village to seek refuge with a human rights organization.
Like the Magburaka girls, student testimonials from our workshops reveal that children are under enormous pressure to undergo FGM even when they have grave misgivings about the practice. In one of the more powerful moments of our workshops, students at the Umuro Muchtarr Muslim Secondary School said they wanted "education" instead of "cutting." "You can go to the bush and [the FGM initiators] can teach you what they want, but they shouldn't touch you," declared a student. The rest of the students burst into applause. They were affirming that traditional rituals from childhood to adulthood should not involve harm.
The final school we visited was different. Gone were the hands eagerly flying into the air to discuss FGM. Gone was the shimmering confidence of the students in the previous schools. Laurel Bangura stepped to the front of the silent classroom and asked how many of the students knew a girl who had died in the bush after undergoing FGM. Many students slowly raised their hands.
Laurel asked, "Is it right for girls to die in the bush because they've been cut?"
"Maybe death is our destiny," one girl softly replied.
"Death should not be any child's destiny," Laurel answered.
I watched the students listening with rapt attention as Laurel made the case against the practice and medicalization of FGM. She spoke, with quiet power, of the human rights of women and girls to integrity and freedom from discrimination. The schoolgirls sat in their white hijab head coverings, like perfect rows of precious eggs, leaning in closer and intently listening with wide, open eyes.