A blade, a needle and a thread: the infibulation tools used by the Waredube people, a community living in southern Ethiopia's Oromyia region
A blade, a needle and a thread: the infibulation tools used by the Waredube people, a community living in southern Ethiopia's Oromyia region
Emanuela Zuccalà

FLORENCE — "My first child died inside me while I was trying to give birth ..."

Hamdi Abdurahman Ahmed is 30 years old and has a marked Florentine accent as she begins to speak. In 2007, she left Somaliland and arrived in this Tuscan city where she currently works as a cultural mediator.

In Italy it is rare to meet women like Ahmed who accept to speak serenely about the scar they have had to live with since they were young: female genital mutilation (FGM), a ritual practice inflicted on 125 million women in 29 countries (27 in Africa, as well as in Yemen and Iraq).

"He was a breech birth and I was too sewn up," Ahmed recalls of the baby she lost. "My people say that a breech birth brings bad luck, so his death was seen as destiny. It didn't dawn on anyone, not even me, that the baby had been strangled by my infibulation."

An insignia of chastity and respectability that in certain societies, from Gambia to the Horn of Africa, takes the most extreme form of infibulation: the removal of all external genitalia, followed by the sewing of the vagina almost completely closed.

Until three years ago, even Hamdi was not able to talk about it: that which in her country is seen as virtue, in Italy and other Western destinations of migrants, it becomes a stigma of barbarity that creates an insurmountable rift between cultures.

"For me, infibulation was a natural condition, like breathing," explains the young woman. "Until one day, all my world turned upside down. I was taking care of a friend who was recovering from a de-infibulation surgery: she needed my help to dress the wound. One day I was late for work so I asked my Italian roommate to look after her. I came back home and found her crying, vomiting, asking me what kind of crime could a woman possibly be guilty of to deserve such torture. In that moment, my mind exploded with every single memory I had suppressed: the cut performed in my tiny room, the unbearably painful menstrual cramps, the death of my child. They teach us that it's normal, that suffering is part of your womanhood. But it's not true. Today, I try to rouse the memories of other women, speaking out against infibulation."

An elusive phenomenon

In Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, how many Somali, Egyptian, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Nigerian women are bearing the same pain as Hamdi? But above all, how many, unlike Hamdi, are still devoted to a tradition handed down from grandmothers and mothers who in turn impose it on their daughters, "cutting" them illegally here in Italy or in their country of origin while on vacation?

The figures are unclear. The latest survey promoted by the former Ministry for Equal Opportunities dates back to 2009: Of the 110,000 women who emigrated from FGM-practicing countries, it was estimated that 35,000 had been subjected to the practices and 1,100 of their daughters were at risk. Italy is currently the European country with the fourth highest prevalence level after Britain (170,000 women), France (53,000) and Sweden (42,000).

The Department for Equal Opportunities has guaranteed that on Feb. 6, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, it will publish on its website all the initiatives financed to date. In fact, Italian law not only punishes whoever practices the "cut" with imprisonment from 3 to 16 years, it also allocates five million euros annually for the investigation of the phenomenon throughout Italy, public awareness campaigns to inform and sensitize communities, and training courses for educators and mediators. Still, much of the European and national funding has since dried up.

What Italy is doing against FGM?

Local initiatives are in fact numerous: It would suffice that the government coordinate them. In Perugia, in 2014, a Reference Center for the Study and Prevention of FGM was opened. In the northern region of Piedmont, the coordinating body for Regional Family Healthcare Clinics organized eight training courses within healthcare facilities, while in the Burlo Garofalo Hospital in Trieste, an 80,000-euro project involving the African migrant associations in Friuli-Venezia Giulia has just been concluded.

"We estimate that there are about 500 girls at risk in the region," explains Head of Gynecology, Salvatore Alberico. "Every year, we perform 2 or 3 de-infibulation procedures: They are carried out in day-hospital and the patient can choose between local and general anesthetic. But it's not simply a matter of restoring an anatomical normalcy in women affected by pelvic infection, chronic cysts, and in more serious cases, recto-vaginal fistulae. The emotional scar tissue must also be repaired."

Cristina Vecchiet, a psychotherapist at the hospital in Trieste, stresses the importance of the physician's attitude and behavior towards the patient: "We avoid calling it ‘mutilation,' to start with because the women don't see it that way," Vecchiet explains. "Before they migrate, it is simply their culture. If they ask for de-infibulation, they need to be made aware of the entire process, releasing them from the silent submission they were subjected to at the moment of the cut."

The motivations that prompt them to get operated are always the same: liquid stasis, painful sexual intercourse, wanting to give birth naturally without a caesarian section. The emotional preparation leading to the procedure is long and marked by inner conflicts. "They fear judgment from their families who maintain a strong influence over them," says Vecchiet. "Of the nine cases treated here in four years, seven husbands were African and they supported their wives' decisions completely."

A young woman from Burkina Faso had to resort even to a plastic surgeon: The cutter who had "fixed" her as a child had let the blade slip, lacerating her up to her bellybutton. A woman from Sudan had postponed the procedure twice in the grip of ambivalence between desire and the terror that had reawakened the shock of the infibulation she had undergone when she was nine years old.

"I have seen women with extremely tightened stitchings, almost incompatible with life," recalls Aldo Morrone, President of the Mediterranean Institute of Heamatology, who was the Director of a division for migrant healthcare at the San Gallicano Hospital in Rome. "For some women, de-infibulation in preparation for childbirth is equivalent to betraying their roots."

Morrone recalls a young university graduate who grew up in Rome, the daughter of an African diplomat, who didn't want to suffer during sexual intercourse any longer. "She made an appointment for de-infibulation seven times and she did not show up seven times," he said. "And a girl with a tumor on her vaginal labia asked us to operate without unsewing her. It's a complex cultural model that must be handled without any prejudice."

Convictions are nearly inexistent

To date, convictions for this crime in Italian courts can be counted on one hand. The first case exploded two months after the 2006 law was entered into force: A Nigerian woman, arrested in Verona as she was preparing to "operate" on a 20-day old girl, after having cut another girl, was then sentenced to one year and eight months. But the parents of the two victims were acquitted in the Court of Cassation. The most recent episode dates back to last October when the Court of Cassation confirmed the relinquishment of parental responsibility for a husband and wife from Nigeria living near the town of Teramo: They had allowed their daughters of 9 and 10 years old to undergo genital mutilation by their grandmother while on a trip to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, 27% of the women have undergone one of the types of FGM. There are 35,700 Nigerian women living in Italy, the largest community of female immigrants from an African FGM practicing country. There are also many women immigrants from Senegal (25,700), Ghana (20,200), the Ivory Coast (10,900), Burkina Faso (5,300), Ethiopia (5,000), and Eritrea (4,500). From Somalia and Somaliland, where the infibulation prevalence stands at 98%, there are about 2,300 women living in Italy.

Every African community is a world in itself: "A Nigerian woman told me in confidence that they turn up the volume of the music really loud and proceed with the cutting," reports Laila Abi Ahmed, a 49-year-old Somali, President of the Nosotras association in Florence. "In Italy, immigrants perform only Type I and II, the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, at a cost of 300 to 500 euros. Not infibulation with the sewing: It's too complicated and dangerous."

According to Laila, this hidden suffering persists because Italy isn't doing enough: "Many doctors can't distinguish between the various types of circumcision," she explains. "Ministerial circulars are not provided at the local state-run healthcare units, and in our training courses we meet health care workers who know nothing about the law against FGM.

According Ahmed of Nosotras, the most important healthcare professionals to train are pediatricians: "When a woman who has undergone FGM gives birth, she should be given a personal medical chart that she can present to her daughter's pediatrician," she says. "This way, the pediatrician will know immediately that the girl is at risk of cut and can monitor her. Serious, responsible prevention can only truly take place this way."

*Photography: Simona Ghizzoni, Maps and graphic: Alessandro D'Alfonso, Data research: Emanuela Zuccalà, Valeria De Berardinis, Video: Emanuela Zuccalà, Simona Ghizzoni, Video editing: Paolo Turla

**This report is part of the UNCUT project on female genital mutilations (FGM). Produced with the support of the "Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program" of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona.

Copyright: Emanuela Zuccalà Simona Ghizzoni - Zona.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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