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Friday, April 29, 2011

After School in Brooklyn, West African Girls Share Memories of a Painful Ritual

April 25, 2011
The New York Times
Nadia Sussman

In a high school classroom in Brooklyn with walls adorned with algebra problems, a 15-year-old girl born in the West African nation of Guinea was talking recently with her friends, after the school day had ended.

The small group — all the students had roots in West Africa — was there not to discuss quadratic equations, but something much more personal.

The 15-year-old was sharing the memory of the day back in her homeland when a neighbor duped her into going to a hospital. There, she was tied down, and restrained, and subjected to genital cutting.

She was 8 at the time, and had to be hospitalized for the bleeding. “I got sick,” the girl said. “I was about to die.”

After she had healed, a celebration was held in her honor.

Now a high school sophomore, the girl belongs to a group of young West Africans who all share the experience of having been subjected to genital cutting, a procedure that is sometimes called circumcision and that opponents refer to as female genital mutilation.

The issue has largely been considered a foreign human rights concern but is starting to pose a bigger challenge here with an increase in the number of immigrants from countries in Africa and elsewhere where the practice is most common.

A conference on Wednesday at Harlem Hospital, hosted by the hospital and by the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families, a group based in the Bronx that works to end female genital cutting, will focus on the physical and emotional needs of women in the United States who have experienced it.

Female genital cutting was banned in the United States in 1996. Some parents send daughters overseas to have it done; other girls are cut by relatives without their parents’ knowledge while on vacation abroad.

A 19-year-old woman from Guinea whose genitals were cut before she moved to the United States said her 13-year-old sister was 6 when their parents arranged for her to undergo the procedure while visiting their homeland. “Since she was there, they did it for her,” said the 19-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn.

Like all of the young women interviewed for this article, she asked not to be identified, saying that she did not want to be publicly associated with an intimate and controversial procedure.

In some families, parents oppose female genital cutting, but the decision about whether or not to have it done is not always theirs to make. Many elders in West African communities hold great social authority and do not seek parental permission to have it done to a girl.

The 15-year-old from Guinea was cut without the consent of her mother, who was living in the United States while her daughter was being raised in Africa by the girl’s paternal grandmother — who also was not consulted.

Female genital cutting is controversial even in countries where it is performed, and opponents have lobbied their governments for decades to outlaw the practice. Campaigns to end the practice have made strides in countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso.

The practice can cause a variety of medical problems, including extensive bleeding, infection, painful menstruation and complications during childbirth. Some women are leery of seeking medical care because they fear their doctors’ reaction.

“It bothers me a lot when I go to doctor visits, how they don’t understand,” said an 18-year-old woman from Guinea whose genitals were cut and who lives in the Bronx. “The look in their face tells you that they are shocked or confused.”

Female genital cutting is practiced in more than two dozen African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East, and the World Health Organization estimates that up to 140 million women have undergone it.

Female genital cutting refers to a range of procedures performed without a medical purpose. They range from clitoridectomy, the removal of part or all of the clitoris, to infibulation, in which all the outer genitalia are removed and the vagina is sealed, often with stitches, except for a small opening. Despite the risks and the controversy, the cutting is, in many places, grounded in strongly held beliefs about cleanliness, chastity and coming of age.

“This is not done with ill intent,” said Zeinab Eyega, the executive director of Sauti Yetu. “This is actually done to embrace the child, to bring the child into the fold of the community.” Nonetheless, Ms. Eyega said the practice was dangerous and needed to be stopped.

Whatever the arguments over the practice, the experience often leaves indelible memories.

“That day was the worst day of my life,” said a 16-year-old high school sophomore in the Bronx. She said she was cut at her grandmother’s house in Guinea when she was 4.

One 17-year-old from the Bronx who was cut at an aunt’s house in Ivory Coast learned of the medical risks by watching a television report about a girl who had been cut and could not have children.

“It made me feel angry, because maybe that can happen to me,” said the 17-year-old, who has been in the United States for eight months. “And it make me feel like my aunt lied to me, but I feel like she doesn’t know, too. She just taught me the way they taught her, too.”

Sauti Yetu and other organizations run peer support groups for African high school students and provide counseling for women who have been cut.

Some opponents of the practice are also pressing for federal legislation to make it a crime to deliberately take or send a girl overseas to be cut.

“It’s not preventing people from going for vacation,” said Mariama Diallo, a social worker with Sanctuary for Families, a Manhattan nonprofit group that opposes genital cutting. “But the girls will feel protected.”

But Ms. Eyega said such a law would discourage women from reporting the procedure or seeking help, out of fear of causing legal trouble for their families.

The bill is sponsored by Representatives Joseph Crowley, Democrat of Queens, and Mary Bono Mack, Republican of California. Nevada and Georgia, as well as several European countries, have adopted similar laws.

More than anything else, girls and young women who have been cut seem to want to be accepted in their new homeland. The 19-year-old from Brooklyn, who was cut in Guinea, said, “They shouldn’t think Africans are weird just because of that.”