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Friday, July 17, 2009

African woman defies death threats fighting circumcision

July 17, 2009

Hamburg - Her work has brought her death threats. Rugiatu Turay, 32, helps girls avoid the cruel and internationally condemned ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Speaking about the millennia-old practice, which affects 8,000 girls worldwide daily, is taboo in Turay's homeland Sierra Leone, as it is in many other African countries.

But she refused to remain silent. In 2003, Turay founded the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM), a women's rights group that fights FGM.

"It's my heart's desire to spare girls the brutal genital mutilation that I myself experienced," she said.

Turay was 12 years old when she fell victim to female circumcision, a procedure in which the clitoris and labia are removed with knives and razor blades. It happened 10 days after the death of her mother, when Turay was taken to a secluded place along with her sisters and female cousins.

"We were glad. We didn't know what awaited us. We thought it was an outing," she emotionally recalled in the Hamburg office of the children's rights organization Plan International, which backs AIM.

"It was horrible," she said. "My sister lay screaming on the ground. I was blindfolded. I resisted with all my strength because my mother had told me that no one should touch me there."

Turay lost so much blood that she was unable to walk for seven days. She was not taken to hospital and nearly died.

"I fled to my father and showed him my wounds," she said. Her father could not help her, however.

"It's almost impossible to talk about it. They want you to be afraid. But I have no fear," Turay said. By "they" she meant the men of Poro, a powerful secret society in Sierra Leone. The Poro men tried to intimidate Turay by laying supposedly magic objects in front of her house.

But she went to the police and asked the Poro chief, "What would you do if someone wants to kill your child?"

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), there are 150 million girls and women worldwide whose genitals have been mutilated. Most of them are in African and Arab countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Meant to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood, female circumcision is often associated with Islam. Neither the Koran nor the Bible mention it, however. But girls who have not been circumcised are considered "unclean."

The circumcisers, who are female, are highly respected and well paid. AIM does not try to publicly shame them, but to persuade them that circumcisions are a bad idea.

"We educate them about the consequences of genital mutilation and suggest alternative sources of income," Turay said, adding that she had converted the Poro chief by showing him a video of FGM.

Through Plan International, AIM also offers school seminars informing children of their human rights. Though an increasing number of girls are aware of the dreadful consequences of FGM, many are unable to overcome the power of the authorities and the circumcisers, as well as pressure from their families, and so have no choice but to flee.

"Since 2005, we've had a least three girls a year who ran away from genital mutilation," Turay said. They found shelter at an AIM centre in the African nation of Guinea, and two of the girls live in Turay's house in Lunsar, her home village.

"With the help of donations, we want to establish a women's refuge there, too," she said.