‘It makes me furious to know the mutilation continues’

‘It makes me furious to know the mutilation continues’
By Euronews
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Khady Koïta was sexually mutilated at the age of seven in Africa. Today, as a mother of four children, the emotional scars are as present as ever. She wrote a book called Mutilée (Mutilated) and has become a leading campaigner in the fight against female genital mutilation. Born in Senegal, and now living in Brussels, Khady spent many years working on the issue in France. Euronews reporter Seamus Kearney caught up with her in Paris.

Seamus Kearney: ‘You wrote this book, Mutilée. How important was it for you to shed light on your own experience?’

Khady Koïta: ‘I wrote the book in 2005, and it covers my entire life, from birth to the present. I wanted to put the spotlight on exactly what female genital mutilation is, because I know it isn’t the same in every country. But it was also written for me, the suffering that I went through and the suffering of many woman around me, because mutilation is included in the definition of violence against women. It’s one of the most violent, most horrible and humiliating forms of violence because it concerns our personal intimacy.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘Do you clearly remember that day when you were sexually mutilated?’

Khady Koïta: ‘Even today I can still recall that time of my life very clearly, especially the day it happened. It’s strange but those memories don’t fade away. All of the memories just stick there. I have quite a happy memory of my life up until the age of seven and after that, the day that I was mutilated, my life was turned upside down.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘Now you are an activist in the struggle against female genital mutilation, does the memory of your own experience remain ever present?’

Khady Koïta: ‘The consequences are with me every single day, especially the psychological consequences, which we didn’t take into account for years. They are very very significant because they last a lifetime. And there are times when it really leads us towards depression. But in our culture, depression does not exist, or did not exist before – so it’s just like a brief period when things are not great. But I make the link between all of that and the mutilation. And obviously it has consequences in my personal life, in my sex life, and in my life as a woman. And so for me the after-effects are with me for life.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘How do you feel when you see these graphic images of FGM still being carried out?’

Khady Koïta: ‘When I see these images, that it’s still happening, when I see that in some countries there are still people practising it, it makes me furious. I want to, well, not kill them. But it’s the pain and suffering that I was put through, and then men come to me and say ‘Yeah, it’s just like circumcision for men’. That’s when I feel like mutilating their genitals so they can understand what we have gone through. I’m only joking, of course, but rage is what I continue to feel, as well as incomprehension, with all the progress we have around the world, in lots of areas. But why does progress on this stop? Why don’t our attitudes change? That’s what makes me angry.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘What for you is the most important aspect of this debate?’

Khady Koïta: ‘I think what’s important is that organisations continue to work for a radical change in attitudes, that politicians really get involved so that the groundwork can de done to make people aware, that we can prevent this and that there are laws against it because legislation is another way of putting a stop to it. Law is a form of prevention, and prevention and the law go together. And so for me the most important thing is to really change attitudes and behaviour.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘You spoke about men, but what do you say to women who defend the practice?’

Khady Koïta: ‘When I see women defending it, they simply don’t understand all the harmful repurcussions of this practice, and we need to have a discussion. There are a lot of women who defend it, but it depends on their backgrounds, where they live, their surroundings. But when we do working groups with these women, they always come round in the end. We ask lots of questions to say ‘why do we put with all of this suffering, all this discrimination?’. So we put mutilation in the same category as violence against women and we begin to understand and to define mutilation as a flagrant violation of human rights, above all against women. It’s at the end of the discussion that they understand that mutilation is a way of controlling sexuality, a form of domination over female sexuality. We say that there are many good things in our culture, why do we continue with the tradition of female genital mutilation? But it’s true, it’s difficult to persuade many women. Women are the guardians of tradition. There is a lot of pressure from family and society because women are teaching the children, and they do everything. They have such an important role in society, which makes it difficult to say ‘stop’ sometimes. So we have to work over the long term. We need to work with the women and the community so that they can say stop. But that takes time, but together with them we are making it happen.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘You already made a stand twenty years ago, which was quite rare back then. How did your family and your country react?’

Khady Koïta: ‘When I arrived in France, at the end of the seventies, there weren’t many African women. But I was lucky to have attended school, so I knew how to read and write. So I helped to write and fill out papers, so I knew a bit about what was happening in families that I was mixing with around that time. I was helping to translate for African families and the PMI, the child protection agency, as well as hospitals. Little by little I noticed the violence coming from the husbands and I said to myself something is not right here. Why is there so much violence, and especially behind those four walls? Why aren’t there any aunts, mothers, cousins, people around us to support us, to help us? In Africa we are not taught by fathers and mothers but the whole community. And so little by little when I helped these women I found myself touched by the violence. I suffered from domestic violence and so I began to fight back little by little. In 1982 there was the death of these three young girls in France, that was when the penny dropped. We thought something isn’t right here. How could we bring our harmful traditions with us to Europe, when we could have taken the opportunity to root out certain practices? Since I was working as a translator I met a Malian women who took me to GAMS and slowly, with all these training courses that I took at GAMS, and understanding the dramatic repurcussions of mutilation, I began to link my life with that. I told myself that I could make a link between my suffering and my personal problems and my colleagues and friends’ problems too. That’s when I told myself that I needed to act, if not we’ll continue to suffer for the rest of our lives, and why should we remain silent? So I decided to speak out. In the beginning it was hard, here in Paris it was very tough. It was hard going, but today the same people who rejected us then are now running after us to congratulate us on the work we have done. But my family in Senegal did support me because I had been a victim of domestic violence which was unknown in my family. My family helped me. When I went to Africa and I asked my father questions about the religious reasons behind mutilation, his responses reassured me in my activism and to say stop to female genital mutilation.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘Was it hard to talk about your own experience?’

Khady Koïta: ‘Very hard. But the fact that I had experienced violence and saw others experiencing the same thing, that actually helped me to help others. So while I was helping other people to leave violence behind them, that also helped me to do the same. In the beginning it was a taboo subject, nobody spoke about it. Then slowly, with others alongside me, because I wasn’t the only one, we were what I call the sacrifices of this battle, that means we sacrificed our lives and everything around us to save a few children. Luckily when you’re surrounded by people who understand that they support you it’s great, and that helps us to go on. We haven’t won the battle yet, but we’re on the right track.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘Are you optimistic that in twenty years time the practice will no longer exist?’

Khady Koïta: ‘I am very optimistic that it will end one day, but I don’t know if I’ll live to see that day. I know it will disappear eventually. But I’m not optimistic like the people who say it will be a thing of the past by 2015, because that’s two years away. In light of the scale, a huge amount of work has been done, but there still remains a lot to be done. I am an optimist by nature that this battle will end one day. I would like it to be sooner rather than later. There are currently many campaigners and others – whether they be political, religious or tribal – who get involved in the fight against mutilation, against violence that is harmful to health.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘When you have a family in front of you who says they are taking their daughter to be cut, what do you say to them?’

Khady Koïta: ‘That has never happened to me. However, there are families who say they are going to Africa to get their daughter cut, and that’s when the hard work begins because we must persuade these families to return with their children intact. It’s hard work, to go into their homes, even at midnight and meet with the father who’s just back from work and the mother and the children to discuss in the week running up to their trip. Sometimes it’s the health centre that calls us to say there is a family that is leaving and we want to know what to do. So we take the number and ask the family. That’s what happened to me two weeks ago. We just called the family and the father accepted to meet us because I spoke like an African. I spoke to him as an African woman, speaking his lingo, as we have words and codes between us. The family welcomed me and we spoke for a long time, for three hours the first time, then two hours and three hours again, and the family promised me that they would return with their children intact.

Seamus Kearney: ‘What is it you actually say to them?’

Khady Koïta: ‘I can’t tell you exactly. It’s on a case by case basis, depending on the family. For example, I first speak about the child’s health, about all of the diseases and infections that occur as a result of the procedure and then I speak about the woman’s life. In the case of the father I talked about, I spoke about sexuality, which isn’t very easy at first. But I spoke to him about it and he looked at me with his eyes opened wide and he listened to everything I said and afterwards he said to me ‘I think that many of the problems between my wife and I can be traced back to what you have just told me.’ So that makes people think. I also spoke about the problems in giving birth and it seems his wife had a lot of trouble giving birth to her two children. She had the problem of being torn many times. She suffered a lot to give birth. So this woman told us ‘I will do everything in my power so that my girls won’t suffer like I did. But I didn’t know. I thought it was part of our religion.’ So I told her that since her husband had studied theology in Saudi Arabia, I want him to point out the passage on FGM. Then the husband confessed that he had never heard of it during his studies, but he learnt about it in Africa, it’s the culture, the tradition, the honour of the father that says you have to do it so that the girl is still a virgin when she gets married, so that she remains chaste, that the girl isn’t sexually promiscuous. He listed all the sexual problems he and his wife were experiencing, and that was very painful for him. But he said to me ‘You came to me as an African to save these little girls, so I’m not going to let you down. When I leave with my girls I’m going to try to spread the word in my village, so that we begin a discussion about it. My daughters will not be mutilated.’

Euronews also spoke to a French women’s rights group, the National Federation GAMS (Group Against Sexual Mutilation). Isabelle Gillette-Faye is the director.

Seamus Kearney: ‘After decades of campaigning, what kind of progress has there been on the issue of female sexual mutilation?’

Isabelle Gillette-Faye: ‘Given the fact that it’s a practice that dates back 26 centuries, and that it’s been 30 years since associations – civil society, governments and international institutions – committed themselves to this fight, we can be relatively satisfied with our results. That means that when we weigh up 26 centuries of practice and 30 years of campaigning we can say that our results are good, mostly good, and now we have big anti-FGM campaigns, especially if we take the example of the African continent. We can see other significant examples. At the European level, when we look at the figures in France, which is rare in that it has precise figures, we can see a reduction as well. In the regions, in the cities, back at the start of the 80s, we had eight children in ten, or nine children in ten, threatened with genital excision or who actually had it performed on them. Today the figure is three in ten children threatened, so we already have a lower figure. We know that about 60,000 mutilated women are living in France, and now 11 percent of their daughters are cut, so it’s not 100 per cent of their daughters mutilated, so we can see very well that even on a European level there has been some significant progress. What we and others have questions about is the rise of ‘antéchrisme’ religions, which means that at the moment, with the instability we can see in Mali, we don’t know what the effects will be in terms of women’s rights, or in terms of women’s rights diminishing. For example, in Egypt, important questions are being raised. The country has the highest level of genital excision in Africa – we still have a figure of 90 percent of women mutilated – and we know that given the political instability at the moment in that country, we can see for example a rise in sexual assaults against women, and the cases of rape are significant, we’re asking questions about female sexual mutilation. So, yes there has been very strong and important progress, but there are question marks and concerns about what we call the Arab autumns or Arab winters, as opposed to the Arab spring.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘What for you has been the most effective method in the battle against sexual mutilation?’

Isabelle Gillette-Faye: ‘I think it’s the combination of methods, which have allowed us to reduce the practice in some areas. It’s having the legislation – for repression and protection – and using it to condemn female sexual mutilation, as well as having the big campaigns of education and the raising of public awareness. Education plays a fundamental role. If we take countries in Africa, when the number of people being educated increases, even in terms of basic reading and writing, we see a fall in the number of daughters repeating the practice carried out by their mothers. For example, when looking at the illiterate, who don’t have the chance to learn to read or write, the rate of prevalence is 80 per cent; that means that 80 per cent of these women carry out the practice on their daughters. Those with primary or secondary education levels, it’s 60 per cent; and among those who go to college or university the prevalence rate is 40 per cent. So we can see very well the role that formal education plays in the reduction of this practice. But we can also see how effective the law can be. For example in Burkina Faso, which made the choice of having both awareness campaigns and the application of legislation, we can see a significant reduction.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘What do you say to those in Africa who say that Westerners don’t have the right to dictate how they should live their lives and what happens to women in Africa?’

Isabelle Gillette-Faye: ‘With regards to our association, we’re not really confronted with that, because we are working in France. But, at the end of the day, if we did work on the African continent, of course the people there could say ‘you’re of Western origins; what right or what opinion do you have over my culture, my tradition. We get involved in Europe, close to a multi-cultural population, and that could include people from Indonesia, for example, who practice female sexual mutilation, and it could be people from a region between India and Pakistan. So for us protection from female sexual mutilation is not limited to the African continent, because France welcomes immigrants from many countries. The diaspora is very large. So the question is not to have the view of a Westerner towards their tradition; the question is to have a view towards the protection in terms of children who are born on our territory, who are French or who have the right to be French. Of course, their families can have very diverse backgrounds, but from the moment life is in France there are rules that apply, and notably rules that apply in France in terms of the respect of human rights; that means that we can’t cut off an organ, and it’s the same if it’s an ear, nose or foot; here it involves the clitoris of a small girl, and that’s no more acceptable.’

Seamus Kearney: ‘But what do you say to those who criticise what you do? Those who say the risks are exaggerated, that different populations are free to live as they see fit? How have you resolved this for yourself, that despite 26 centuries of this being practiced you are right to fight this cause?’

Isabelle Gillette-Faye: ‘I think from the moment that we accept that human rights are universal, not only limited to industrialised countries, everything becomes acceptable and worthy of being heard. Why should it be unacceptable in France to mutilate a child, but acceptable elsewhere? That’s the question. What I don’t accept as a citizen of the world when it comes to children, the respect of children’s rights and women’s rights, I don’t see why I would accept that in some parts of the world, in some tribes, in some ethnic groups, etc. And I would find it unacceptable if it happened to my sister, or my mother, or grandmother, or my own daughter. The idea is: what would be acceptable for my own daughter? Would mutilation be acceptable for my own daughter? No, it wouldn’t be acceptable, and so I don’t see why I would find it acceptable for the daughter of a neighbour. That’s the question.’

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