UNCUT: The War Against Female Genital Mutilation

Cut From Africa To Europe: Female Circumcision Among Migrants In Italy

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 â€" "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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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