An African Problem in the Heart of Europe

Female Genital Mutilation in Immigrant France.

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Diaryatou Bah was just eight years old when she went through the most traumatic experience of her life. "A woman brought me into the bush with my grandmother and her sister-in-law," she recalls. "They took off the red loincloth I was wearing, placed leaves on my face and caught my hands and feet. Then the woman circumcised me with a knife that she had used to circumcise other girls."

Bah is now a 22-year-old living in France (previously she lived in the Netherlands and her native Guinea) but she still remembers the pain of that moment in the bush. "It was deep, so deep… but at the same time I felt proud, because I was like the other girls who went through this before me."

It is estimated that up to 130 million girls and women in the world have undergone what the United Nations refers to as female genital mutilation (FGM), which most often consists of the removal of part of the clitoris and labia - without the benefit of any anesthetic.

According to a 2004 report from the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, more than 53,000 women living in France have undergone some form of the procedure. Many people assume that the women dealing with its aftermath were subject to the mutilation, as Bah was, in a distant native land. But the practice of female genital mutilation is being carried out secretly in many immigrant communities in France and other parts of the world.

Western nations have their own troubled history with FGM. It was carried out in the 19th century in Great Britain and France, and then later in the United States, to prevent women from masturbating. It has since been officially banned in several African and Western countries. But it is still routinely performed in 28 African countries as well as in parts of Southeast Asia and the Near East. Justifications for the practice vary from social custom to religious mandate to social and political control of women's sexuality.

In an attempt to draw attention to the issue, several African women living in France have written books in which they have shared the heavy, painful secret of FGM. Among the most prominent are the late Guinean top model Katoucha, who wrote Dans ma Chair (2007), Diaryatou Bah, with On m'a volé mon enfance (2006) and Senegalese activist Khady Koita, with Mutilée (2005).

The motivation for these revelations seems to be the desire to protect young girls from serious, sometimes lethal, consequences of the procedure, including fistula, complicated childbirth, high infant mortality and morbidity, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and low sexual desire.

France began paying attention to the issue of FGM in the late 70's. It became the first country in the world to sentence a FGM practitioner back in 1979. The practice was outlawed in the 1980s following the efforts of Linda Weil-Curiel, a lawyer for the Commission for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation (Commission pour l'Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles - CAMS), which was founded in 1982 by Awa Thiam, a Senegalese academic who denounced FGM in her famous book La parole aux Négresses (1978). French law calls for prison sentences of up to 20 years for parents who subject their daughters to the practice, as well as for those who perform the procedure.

"I have participated in some forty cases in the Paris region" said, Weil-Curiel. "All cases have led to prison sentences, suspended or not, for around a hundred parents. Two excisors have been sent to jail."

One of the two jailed practitioners Weil-Curiel refers to is Hawa Greou, a Malian woman who became one of France's most notorious excisors. After successfully prosecuting Greou, Weil-Curiel teamed with journalist Natacha Henry to help Greou tell her story in the book Exciseuse.