BURUNTUMA, Guinea-Bissau – “In all four of my deliveries I had a hemorrhage,” said 39-year-old Djenabu Sano, reflecting on the consequences of female genital mutilation on the births of her children.
“I don’t want what I’ve been through to happen to other women and girls. This made me reflect on the need to sensitize others and save lives.”
In Buruntuma, in Guinea-Bissau’s far eastern region of Gabu, Ms. Sano is leading her community’s efforts to abolish female genital mutilation. Gabu has one of the highest rates in the country – some 96 percent of the female population have been subjected to it – so Ms. Sano talks with neighbors and religious and traditional leaders to raise awareness of the dangers of the practice.
“I try to understand people’s perceptions, while also highlighting the harmful consequences it had on my own life,” she explained to UNFPA, the United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency.
Female genital mutilation involves injuring or removing female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Perpetuated by and rooted in biased gender norms, it can lead to serious health complications including severe infection, chronic pain, depression, infertility, and death. It is internationally recognized as a human rights violation.
Although criminalized in Guinea-Bissau since 2018, it continues to be practiced in many communities, mainly for cultural and religious reasons often rooted in the lower status of women and girls, such as the idea that their bodies need to be “fixed” to be marriageable.
Change agents in ending female genital mutilation
Ms. Sano teaches literacy classes and runs her own business, but said she’s happy to make time for her third job advocating to end female genital mutilation – a role she has played for 10 years. She also trains fellow advocates in 20 other communities.
Her approach is not to reprimand. It is to listen. She hosts community dialogues supported by the UNFPA and UNICEF joint program to eliminate female genital mutilation, paying particular attention to religious and tribal elders, who are often key to winning over other members of the community.
“When organizing a community dialogue, we also need to take into consideration that invisible power brokers may be listening and reporting back to religious and traditional leaders, who then decide on the level of compliance or resistance,” explained Ms. Sano.
There are many challenges to this work, especially during the rainy season when it is hard to travel, and throughout the cashew harvesting period, when people have less time to devote to other activities. But the advocacy is making a difference.
Religious and traditional leaders in Guinea-Bissau have emerged as champions, informing and preparing their communities to abandon female genital mutilation. They and other advocates, like Ms. Sano, are teaching young people to embrace change as future parents. And the issue is increasingly recognized as being not simply an issue of physical harm, but also an issue of gender inequality.
Last year in Guinea-Bissau, UNFPA launched four men’s and boys’ clubs to try and instigate behavior change to address gender stereotypes and biases. Over 140 young people were also trained in the legal aspects of ending female genital mutilation. And the stigma around talking about women’s bodies is falling away.
“Nowadays religious and traditional leaders are talking openly about female genital mutilation, which was taboo before,” explained Fatumata Djalo during a dialogue in the Buruntuma sector. “In the past, women would not even participate in such meetings in the presence of their husbands.”
Local leaders show the way
Over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. This year, the number of people being subjected to it is expected to increase as conflict, climate change, rising poverty and inequality hinder efforts to eliminate the practice.
As more than half of all women and girls and 15 to 19 in Guinea-Bissau have experienced female genital mutilation, UNFPA is strengthening the capacity of local actors to better advocate at all levels, from the community to decision-makers.
Speaking of the potentially deadly impact the practice had on her, Ms. Sano said, “I am lucky to be alive – some may not have the same fate.”