Florence Gbolu & Jaime Jacques
Originally published July 13, 2005
Growing up in a community where there is the belief that a woman is not regarded
ideal unless she goes through genital circumcision, Matilda Ayripah could not
wait for her turn to be circumcised and be given all the respect due her. She saw her circumcision as one thing she ought to do before associating with men.
At age 18, Matilda ran away from her parents and voluntarily arrived at the compound of the circumciser in her village to become an “ideal women”. Girls who were not circumcised were insulted and ridiculed and she did not want to be the victim of her friend’s desultory comments.
During her turn, she recalls being given a concoction to drink. After she drank it she was laid down and held firmly by a strong group of men. She became scared at the last minute, and struggled to rise and run away but it was too late, she says. She woke up three days later from a long sleep, restless and in great pain. Her parents sat beside her and gave her a broad smile to signify their pride in her braveness and understanding of tradition.She was then given food and some herbal medicine, and was cautioned by the circumciser not to touch or remove anything inside of her because she would become barren. After going through all this pain in the quest to be an ideal African woman, she couldn’t afford to become barren so she obliged. Later in the evening, the circumciser and some strong men held Matilda firmly to remove the large folded cotton which had been inserted into her to protect her womb before circumcision.
As she recounts her story, the look on her face betrays the pain Matilda felt during the removal of the cotton.
In fact, there are many painful memories she lives with every day, from the actual cutting to the post-natal infections. Matilda regrets her decision to be circumcised, but is resigned to the fact that it is too late to turn back time. She would, however, like to advise other girls thinking of going through with the procedure that the lifelong physical and emotional pain of FGM is not worth abiding by tradition. “I feel pain whenever I remember what happened to me, whenever I remember I call my children to encourage them to never go through with it”.
More and more people are coming to realize the disastrous effects FGM can have on a woman’s life, and although the practice is on the decrease, it is still happening in Ghana, says Rierselle Akanbong of the CHRAJ office in Navrango. “There is still cause for concern, I believe there are still pockets of this practice going on, and we must eradicate this heinous crime,” he says. “It is a violation of children’s rights. It inflicts pain on them when their entire clitoris is cut off with absolutely no anesthetic. The ceremony is degrading, and the child is not able to attend school for at least three months, while she heals.”
Akanbong, who comes from the region recalls witnessing FGM ceremonies in the mid nineties. “I saw it with my own eyes. it was horrible,” he says. “The girls were screaming and there was so much blood coming out, one girl even fainted.”
Back then, FGM was openly practiced and even encouraged. After years of advocacy against the practice, female circumcisers have become more secretive, but it is still going on in the remote villages of the upper east region, says Akanbong. “There will be drumming and dancing outside of a mud hut, disguising it as a marriage ceremony,” he says. But inside FGM is going on.
Although he doesn’t get any complaints of FGM, he believes it is because people still do not know that the practice is against the law. “When we embark on educational programmes most often the people become surprised when they hear that FGM is a criminal offense,” he says.
The paramount chief of the Bolga region, Ya Na, is trying to enforce the criminal code. Six years ago he created a law that holds the subchief of a district responsible before the circumciser. Since then he has seen a drastic reduction in the number of FGM cases in the region. He is pleased with the results and works hard to advocate the eradication of all forms of FGM in Ghana.
“When circumcised women menstruate, there are problems, when they want to have babies, there are problems. There is nothing good about FGM, either traditionally or medically,” he says.
Traditionally, the origins of female circumcision are not clear. There are theories, but they are speculative. Some of these suggest that women were circumcised to stop them from engaging in extra marital affairs, or to stop them from being too sexually demanding towards their husband who may have numerous wives to satisfy. Other theories suggest that it is more enjoyable for men to have sex with a circumcised woman. Matilda negates this idea, saying that her husband left her because he did not enjoy having sex with her because of her circumcision.
Matilda also had no pleasure or satisfaction any time she made love with her husband.
“In our tradition it was the duty of a wife to be submissive to her husband so I had
to do what he say and want to make him happy,” she says. “When you are circumcised you hardly enjoy sex with your husband, you just realize some few months later that your love-making yielded a good result with a pregnancy.”
Matilda is a mother of seven, now at age 44; she lives alone since her husband is
married to another woman who is not circumcised.
Medically, the most prevalent problems associated with FGM are post delivery infections, and pelvic inflammatory diseases, says a doctor with Rural Health Integrated, an NGO in Bolgatanga that does advocacy work to stop the practice of FGM.
Although he is pleased with the decrease in FGM in Ghana (between 1995 and 2000 the incidence had fallen from 14 per cent to 2.8 percent), he worries about women inserting herbs into their vaginas; something he says is still widely practiced in Ghana. “Women do it to make themselves tighter,” he says, “But what it is really doing is reducing the elasticity of the walls of the vagina, and causing ulcers which are then transmitted to the their partners.”
Like FGM, it is a practice that is intended to increase the pleasure for a man, but in reality is harmful for both the woman and her sexual partner. It is part of a tradition with no clear origin, and no measurable benefits, the kind of practice that should be abandoned, says the chief of Bolgatanga. “Obsolete customs and traditions should not be maintained, maintain the good ones, but we have to accept change.”