“A girl who hasn’t been cut won’t get a husband. That’s what people used to say around here,” says grandmother Fatoumata, 55. “We now know that this is untrue. There are other ethnic groups in Mali that do not practice female genital cutting and the men and women of these groups just get married! One of my daughters is married to a man from a different ethnicity and he also has another wife.
One day, my daughter came back very upset. It turned out that her husband preferred sleeping with his other wife because she gave him more pleasure in bed. Yes, we discuss things like this in our family. Once your children are married, they are regarded as your equals and you can talk to them candidly.
I don’t think it’s normal for a woman not to enjoy sex. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, once you are married both of you should have pleasure in bed. But, of course, there will always be men who think that it’s not necessary for a woman to have pleasure.”
Fatoumata’s granddaughter, Aissatou, three, is wearing a pink princess’s dress today. According to Sanaba, her mother, Aissatou always wants to look her best, with a pretty dress, neat shoes and braids in her hair. And she never stops talking, “What I like most is playing with my brothers and I don’t have a favourite colour,” she says.
Fatoumata explains how the whole village used to celebrate when their daughter’s genitals were cut: “In the old days, genital cutting was an initiation rite for girls, to prepare them for their future. The whole community would participate. But nowadays it’s become more controversial and it usually takes place discreetly at home. And the girls who are cut are getting younger and younger. This is because the younger a girl is, the less likely she’ll be to discuss it with her friends. And a young girl is perhaps less affected by the pain.”
According to Fatoumata, it’s been 12 years since a girl in their family was cut. “It’s something I decided myself, without involving my husband. It was because of my daughter, who kept coming back here telling me about the same problem she was having with her husband. As far as I am concerned, Aissatou will also not be cut. The first girls in our family not to be cut were married without finding it difficult to find a suitable husband. Men don’t care these days.”
Fatoumata’s husband grows maize and millet in the family’s fields. Fatoumata herself likes to tend her modest garden and says she’s had a good peanut harvest this year. Excusing herself, she says she has to go to her garden: “And I feel a little embarrassed to hear my daughter speak of things like this.”
Her daughter Sanaba, 24, also works in the field, as does her husband of 10 years. They have four children, the youngest of which is a bouncing baby boy of six months called Karim. Aissatou is their only daughter. Sanaba was one of the last girls in the family to be cut. “I had no complications during my pregnancies or during the births of my children.” Then, dropping to a whisper, she adds: “I don’t have any trouble reaching an orgasm either.”
She sees it as somewhat of a miracle that she’s not had any problems. “I was 10 when I was cut and I suffered terribly. I bled a lot. The cutter was angry with my family, admonishing them for the fact that I was too old. She did it with a traditional knife. I was one of a group of girls to be cut and, afterwards, we were all kept together in a house for a month. Everything went wrong. Some girls suffered local inflammation, others were left with serious scars. One girl even died, but I don’t remember much about that anymore. It’s just wasn’t talked about.”
She remembers clearly how sad her mother was when she was taken to be cut. “But she stayed in the background. I was actually very shocked that my mother could let something like this happen to me. I was also disappointed, almost angry, with my grandmother for taking me to the cutter.”
Sanaba makes a conscious effort to talk to friends from her neighbourhood who, like her, have young children and must decide on the future of their daughters. “Some of them want to cling to this tradition, even though they are aware of the consequences. I think women of my age should support teenage girls.
Many girls of 14 or 15 are determined that when the time comes their daughters will not be cut. Someone has to help these girls stick to their decision. And I think that more information meetings must be organised in the village.”
Sanaba hopes that by the time Aissatou has children, the tradition will have been eradicated. “More and more children are going to school and learning to think for themselves. No child who is well informed and able to stand up for himself or herself wants the practice of genital cutting to continue.”