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Monday, May 9, 2011

Doctors, West African women who relocated to NYC speak out against forced female circumcision

May 6, 2011
NY Daily News
Heidi Evans

Nana Ouattara, a tall and elegant Harlem mother of two, grew up never thinking anything was wrong with her body.

Until the West African immigrant was examined at Metropolitan Hospital during her pregnancy in 1994.

Only then did it begin to dawn on her the trauma that was forced upon her body when she was 3 years old.

"I called my mother in Mali and said, 'Mommie, why did you let this happen to me?'" said Ouattara, 43, her eyes thick with tears and rage.

This is the delicate subject of female genital cutting - or circumcision of young girls - a ritual in many African countries seen as a celebration, a rite of passage, a protection against promiscuity.

It is also a practice that is a federal crime in the U.S and was the focus of a national conference hosted by Harlem Hospital and the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women & Families last week.

While female genital cutting (FGC) is recognized as a human rights violation around the world affecting 140 million women, the practice is receiving increasing focus here in New York City, where West African immigrants have come in growing numbers.

Harlem is affected in particular as it is home to a large population of women from FCG-practicing countries, such as Mali, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and even Egypt.

Many of these women seek Ob-Gyn care at Harlem Hospital Center. And their children get their checkups there.

"I have this conversation with all parents who are taking their female children back to their countries for a first-time visit," said Dr. Benjamin Aubey, a pediatrician at Harlem Hospital.

"Many of the mothers break down in tears over their own experience, and want their daughters to be left intact, but they feel pressure from elders back home. I explain there are bad health outcomes. I don't want it happening to these children."

The practice involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the genital organs for nonmedical reasons.

Girls as old as 12 are held down and anesthetics are not used during the cutting.

Doctors say long-term health complications are numerous, including difficulty in urinating, sexual pain, recurrent vaginal infection, not to mention hemorrhaging during the process.

Of the many misconceptions around the issue, one is that it doesn't happen among educated families within countries that subject girls to cutting.

Dr. Crista Johnson, a national expert who works with refugees in Arizona, told the audience that a well-educated midwife from an urban African capital recently explained it to her this way: "My mother-in-law drives the show. If I don't have it done to my baby, I can't go home."

Djoumel Diallo, who manages a pharmacy in Harlem, said the procedure she underwent at 3 months old has caused her unimaginable physical and emotional pain. Childbirth was excruciating, she said, until her third birth which was a C-section.

Diallo, 39, immigrated to Manhattan from Mali in 1995. She is married with three children. "All boys," she said. "Thank God."

Ouattara, who works in a Harlem salon braiding hair, said she will fight to protect her 16-year-old daughter who attends an uptown high school.

"I told my mother if we go back to visit, 'NOT MY DAUGHTER!' We have to stop this now!" said Ouattara. "It's too late for us, the damage has been done. But we can fight for our children."