Ghanaians decry female genital cutting

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      Clement Apaak was 11 when he watched his female cousins tied down and cut, one by one. Apaak remembers them screaming.

      "This woman walked in with a bowl of equipment, including knives and razor blades. Each girl was held down by as many people as possible and, with no pain killers or anesthetic, a woman cut out the clitoris. There was blood everywhere, and the girls screamed until they couldn't cry anymore."

      Back in 1982, Apaak–a native of northeastern Ghana in Africa–didn't think this was wrong. Female genital cutting (FGC) was legal, and within his ethnic group it was the norm, a practice that went back for generations.

      Twenty-five years later, the self-proclaimed feminist has changed his tune, and now Apaak, a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, wants to spread the word throughout Vancouver. His message is clear: African communities need to focus on educating people about the negative consequences of FGC and finally put an end to the practice.

      "In my life, I've come to really see that most of these things are used to mask a male-dominated system. This is done to benefit the man, not the woman. It's done to reduce the libido of the woman to prevent them from being promiscuous; it's fully self-serving to the man."

      When it comes to FGC, the western world often equates it to a ceremonial practice, a coming-of-age ritual for young African girls. This lessens the barbarism associated with the act and allows some people to accept and understand it. But FGC is not always associated with traditional ceremonies and rituals. Western NGOs and other organizations have made progress in attempting to eradicate the practice, but in latter years much change has come from within the societies in question.

      Who is fuelling the campaign to eliminate this practice? So much of the progress that has taken place over the past decade in specific African countries is due to local communities and passionate individuals. This is especially true in Ghana, where people are challenging Ghanaians to take a stand and look at how FGC is affecting and damaging the women of their country.

      Situated in the heart of West Africa, bordered by Togo and Ivory Coast, Ghana has a population of more than 18 million. These inhabitants belong to more than 15 major ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language, culture, and traditional religious practices–practices such as FGC, which rarely occurs in the country's south but is still practised illegally in the north.

      In 1994, FGC was made illegal in Ghana, and since then at least seven people have been arrested, with a few prosecuted successfully, but reporting on such statistics is inconsistent. However, the practice continues, only now it is performed underground.

      "The problem now is enforcement," Apaak says.

      In 2004, Saida Hodzic, a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, spent a year in Ghana researching the social impact that various nongovernmental organizations have had in trying to stop the cutting.

      "Our understanding of the cutting should be based on the dualism, not just the victims of cutting. We only hear stories about African victims and then westerners who oppose the practice. None of the women I spoke with represented themselves as victims of cutting, and there are so many Africans who are pioneers, and people should pay more attention to that."

      One such pioneer is Charity Alidu, or Mama, as she's called in her community of Tamale, the capital of the northern region of Ghana. Mama was nine when she was cut, and even though she says she never felt any pain and at the time didn't condemn the practice, she says now it's time to stop.

      "I had to learn about sex from my friends," Mama says, speaking in Dagbani and flailing her hands around her head. "I would listen to them speak about sex, and then I realized something was missing in my own life. That shouldn't have to be, not today, not in this modern age." And even though Mama says she's accepted her past in good faith, she is now speaking to media outlets and people all over her community about putting an end to FGC and condemning those who refuse to stop cutting.

      Recent radio interviews on Diamond FM and Justice FM in Tamale and a panel discussion in the national capital, Accra, have helped raise awareness about this issue among Ghanaian women. Mama says it's making a difference.

      "It will stop. All it takes is to advise people one by one, and they will change. It has to come from within." Mama says that the ones who can best put a stop to FGC are those who truly understand why this practice occurs.

      And that, Hodzic says, is why so many Ghanaians are taking matters into their own hands.

      "There is a great misconception most westerners have as to the significance of the cutting. Almost all the women I've spoken with never attached any ceremonial significance to it. It just seemed to be a fact of life. Sometimes it would happen randomly, like, 'Oh we're getting cut tomorrow; do you want to get cut?' There's a big discrepancy to how Ghanaian women see cutting and then how the rest of the world sees it."

      Apaak says that many Ghanaian women are told that they're being circumcised in order to ensure an easier time during childbirth, when the truth is that one of the greatest reasons for cutting–across most ethnic groups–is to reduce the libido of the woman, preventing them from being promiscuous.

      "This is done to benefit the women”¦says who?" Apaak asks. And this is why he maintains that education is so important, particularly for the men and the local community leaders, who have the greatest influence.

      Since the practice was ruled illegal in Ghana more than a dozen years ago, some northern areas of the country have seen the number of FGC cases decline, and although there are still those who practise in secret, Ghanaians like Mama and Apaak believe that one day it will end.

      "We have a collective responsibility to advocate against it and provide the resources needed as to why practices like this have to stop," Apaak says. "This cultural practice is detrimental to people and has to be stifled."