FGM Realities in Rural Ghana
AFRICA SERIES : PART 5
“Losing three children at birth is the most painful thing that has ever happened to me in my life. I dont know why but for three consecutive pregnancies I lost the babes just like that haven gone through pregnancy excruciation pains in each case,” says Fatimatu Asiedu.
This is a story of a 42-year-old Asiedu from Binduri, a community near Bawku in the Upper East region of Ghana. She suffers from the female genital mutilation (FGM) practice in Ghana.
Asiedu, who traces her roots from Bukina Faso, said though she is married, sex never entices her because of the nightmares of sexual pains she has to endure each night. “When the sun goes down my panic begins. Sometimes I will find myself engaging other women in unnecessary conversations just to keep us awake. All of this was because of sexual nightmares, the pain is just totally unbearable,”she said.
Asiedu won’t disclose these nightmares to her husband for fears of losing him. “Because of stigma and vilification I am compelled to suffer in silence,” she said.
Her troubles started when she was 16, a junior high school pupil. During their periods, female students often went home to change because the school did not have facilities for young girls to comfortably change and dispose of sanitary pads. “Most of us didn’t go to school during our periods – instead, we stayed at home until the menstruation was over,” she said.
One day she noticed a fresh cut beneath her genital organ. At first she hid it even from her mother, but when the pain got unbearable, she had to ask for help. Her mother told her that wound was from the circumcision which never healed. She blamed it on the warizam (local circumciser) who performed it on her as a little girl.
Today, Asiedu lives with a painful testimony of a dangerous cultural and religious practice, female genital circumcision/mutilation (FGC/FGM).
Horrific tradition is still alive
The practice of FGC/FGM is most prevalent in the Upper East Region of Ghana. It is also practiced in remote parts of the Northern, Upper West and parts of Volta Regions of Ghana.
In the southern part of Ghana, it is practiced among migrants from these areas including Mali, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso and other neighbouring countries. The practice crosses religious boundaries, and it is common among Kussasi, Frafra, Kassena, Nankanne, Bussauri, Moshie, Manprusie, Kantansi, Walas, Sissala, Grunshie, Dargati and Lobi tribes.
There is no evidence of health benefits in practicing FGC/FGM, only harm, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO says that the practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18 per cent of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing.
In 1996, Amnesty International Ghana, together with the Association of Church Development Projects (ACDEP), estimated that 76 per cent of all women in the Upper East, Upper West and Northern regions had been excised. The report cited the following communities and towns in Ghana where it is still widely practiced: Kasena-Nankana, Bolgatanga, Bawku East and West in the Upper East Region; Bole, Mamprusi, West Walewale and Zabzugu-Tatale among Kotokoli in the Northern Region; Wa and Nandom in the Upper West Region; and Kadjebi, Worawora and Jasikan in the northern Volta Region.
Traditional beliefs also play an important role. Some argue that the practice “cleans up women” and limit or prevent women’s infidelity. Others say it increases fertility and prevents the death of first-born babies. FGC/FGM is also seen as a way to suppress a woman’s sexual desires and make her less promiscuous. Other common beliefs are that children born to uncircumcised women are stubborn,troublesome and more likely to be blinded or otherwise damaged if the mother’s clitoris touches them during birth.
There is no scientific evidence to back up such claims.
“It was important to do door-to-door campaigning because rural women’s rights are most abused,” says Madam Fati Alhassan, founder of the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation (GSF), a women’s rights advocacy organisation based in Tamale, Ghana. “They don’t have access to the media because it’s mainly based in the cities. I decided to establish a foundation to cater exclusively for women’s rights.”
Before establishing the foundation, Alhassan worked as a journalist with the Advocate newspaper. Having written a lot about FGM, widowhood, early and forced marriages, she decided to help the women in a more practical way.
“I used to write tormenting human right abuse articles, but to no response.So I decided to take the fight personally to the doorsteps of policymakers, chiefs and religious leaders. We have made headway in our advocacy and training programmes,” she said. Alhassan also fights witchcraft accusations, discrimination against the girl child, and women’s rights to own property including land.
Although it’s not easy to be fighting for the abolition of such harmful practices in a religiously and culturally closed society, progress has been achieved. GSF aims to empower women through training workshops and capacity-building programmes. The foundation had issued a number of policy papers to raise awareness on the need for society to desist from acts that harm women.
Force for change: Education and Development
As Africa seeks to advance in technology, education and development, many of its culture and traditional values have been modified. Cultural and traditional practices considered outmoded are no longer respected. Women are now participating in decision-making processes in some rural communities in Ghana, an area previously reserved for men.
The continent is building a new generation of people whose focus is on development, technology and economic growth. Bit by bit, women are liberating themselves from the cultural and traditional systems that used to enslave them or limit their advancement.
The most important tool that could propel the much-needed changes in cultural and religion set-ups is strong political will and legal framework. A good example is the new constitution in Somalia which banned FGM completely.
Some other cultural practices, such as forbidding young girls to eat meat and eggs until marriage and giving birth, trading girls off to suitors or presenting them as gifts to chiefs and priests are fading away.
For women in Ghana and many other African nations, hope is brewing that someday all these harmful discriminatory practices will be put to rest.