Monday, June 22, 2009
June 22, 2009 By Halley Bondy/For The Star-Ledger WEST ORANGE -- Female genital mutilation is hardly a common topic in West Orange. For 40 years, resident Caroline Ilogienboh has struggled to discuss her condition with men. If she brings it up with American men, they seem bashful, or in her words, "clueless." "It's not a subject most people ordinarily talk about, especially men," Ilogienboh said. "But it is a men's issue--if it affects your sex life, it's something we need to talk about." In Ilogienboh's self-published new novel, men are the key to saving women in her position. A native of Nigeria, she was circumcised at 11, having her clitoris removed in a village ritual. As she grew up, she realized female circumcision is a topic that, if not raised by women's advocacy organizations, is not discussed at all. After interviewing more than 30 men in New Jersey and New York, Ilogienboh, 51, wrote her self-published novel "Saving Bekyah" about an American man who goes to great lengths to satisfy a Nigerian woman who was mutilated as a child. The two of them, with the help of other men in her home village, eventually become embroiled in the politics of female circumcision in Africa. "If you want to make any real change in Africa, it has to be from the men there," Ilogienboh said in a phone interview. "Women can fight all they want, but until men say, 'If you cut her, I will not touch her,' nothing will change." Ilogienboh said, in Africa, clitoridectomies are forced on young girls and infants to keep them from becoming promiscuous. The World Health Organization estimated that between 100 million and 140 million girls alive today have undergone some form of genital mutilation, and that in Africa, three million girls annually are at risk of undergoing the procedure. "It was something that we just did, I didn't think about it," Ilogienboh said. "Only most girls have it as infants, but I remember everything." Tim Sutton, a spokesman for UNICEF said the numbers are more staggering than people think, but that, after Ilogienboh's generation, female genital mutilation started tapering off. "There is research which shows that the prevalence of female genital mutilations and clitoridectomies has declined slowly but steadily during the last 15 years," Sutton said. "Now it seems that older girls and younger women are less likely to have experienced any form of female genital mutilations than older women. Much, much more still needs to be done." Ilogienboh said that although she did not experience common health problems, such as infection or infertility, she was emotionally traumatized. She said she eventually became an angry teenager, beating up schoolmates and running away from home. At age 20, Ilogienboh moved to Canada to study economics. She moved to East Orange in 1987 and worked as a juvenile probation officer for 15 years. In 2001, she started the Essex Girls Talk program, a support group for girls on probation. "I found myself drawn to teenage girls," Ilogienboh said. "I understand growing up and being angry, and being in such a developmental stage of life when your body is blooming, and you're so confused." It was also through her work with teens that she became interested in writing. She wrote her first self-published novel, "Jayda's Story" in 2001 about a teenage runaway growing up in Newark. She has since written six other books, including "Saving Bekyah." She writes in West Orange, where she lives with her husband. "My writing is my passion," Ilogienboh said. "I write real issues and hope that I can change lives."