In the early days of the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM), a French women’s group circulated a petition protesting the practice at an international meeting on women and development in Dakar. They had heard their African sisters’ stories about how young girls were infibulated, their entire private parts removed and sewn back together. This extreme form of FGM-induced psycho-physical trauma in girls would endure their entire lives. In the case of infibulation, re-cutting would have to take place before intercourse and cause more physical pain and injury with each childbirth. The French participants were so outraged that they called for a ban on the practice.
As the petition reached me, my Ethiopian friend Belkis whispered to me to not sign it. She felt strongly that African women should take the leadership on this issue because Westerners might misunderstand the practice. In her experience, FGM was sensationalized, associated with so-called “barbaric” African practices and taken out of its cultural context.
The African women raised their voices in protest and brought the petition signing to a dead halt. The French women were shocked at this resistance and insisted that collective action was the only answer. The African women would have no part of their initiative. Resisting the French feminist call for action, the Africa group started their own movement. At that meeting, the first pan-African NGO association against FGM was organized and was called the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.
That meeting was decades ago, but it is important to remember that choice of leadership is still an issue. FGM is a heinous violent act against girls, but it cannot be eradicated unless those who are fighting for change understand the deeply-entrenched beliefs of the people who practice it.
Whether the movement against FGM is in the Sudan, Senegal, France, or Germany, the women who have to live with the political realities of banning FGM should lead the way. They are the most knowledgeable about the political landmines, the evolving cultural contexts, and how local women react to outside involvement. At the same time, when international action is needed, sisters from around the world should be ready to help.
Women who want to show support for the African women’s cause can often contribute by learning about their own governments’ positions at international meetings on FGM. These women can also be advocates for foreign policies that are a combination of non-interference and unwavering financial support for women’s sexual and reproductive rights as a human right. Respect for diversity requires us to share leadership, and the women’s movement is learning these lessons the hard way. In some countries, it is taking time. Once the lessons are under our belts, we’ll be qualified to teach others.