Dear Yaw

Should FGM Be Abolished?

Dear Yaw

I’ve been reading your column religiously and your replies actually hit the nail on the head so I’m hoping
you’Il be able to help me. My mother died from complications due to FGM when giving birth to me.

My grandmother raised me and when I was 14 she and a group of women took us to the forest and performed puberty rites on us. At the time I was told FGM prepares you for womanhood and by undergoing this practice it makes me a better woman for my husband but it’s just the opposite.

I have painful sex anytime my husband and I are together. Having my daughter was a life and death experience. This is a barbaric practice against women and I want it to stop.

My daughter is getting close to puberty and I don’t want her to go through the pain I did. At the same time, I want the women in my tribe not to think less of her as a woman. How do I tell them the risk of FGM
outweighs upholding the tradition of womanhood?


Hi Mamuna

Well, you speak of a tragic problem that is still widespread. I am sorry to read of your mother’s death and your own circumstances as a result of FGM. I am also glad that you are powerful enough to defend your daughter and to know that change is necessary.

Unfortunately, violent problems of this nature are not easily resolved because, like so many problems that are deeply embedded in cultural practices, people have been scared into believing that they are important and they have trouble even considering that things might be done differently.

As you obviously realize including, tragically, from your own experience, FGM is a painful and very violent and harmful practice, with terrible lifelong consequences. It is also based on wrong information that has been widely circulated for a very long time and is believed by many people. These beliefs are held in place by fear. The fear of what people believe will happen to a girl or young woman who does not suffer this violence.

Hence, as with so many problems discussed in this column, while truthful information will play a part in ending this violence, the fact is that those who still engage in it need to feel the fear that makes them believe that FGM is important or necessary. That means that someone needs to listen to each person who believes in FGM so that they can feel their fear and thus cast it aside in order to behave powerfully to end FGM. See ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’.

Given that many, perhaps even most, women in your tribe believe this practice is necessary, it will be valuable if each woman can have someone ‘nistel’ to her. How this comes about will vary.

As a matter of interest, do you think it would be possible to call a meeting of tribal women to discuss the issue? Would you be able to present information with reasons why FGM should not be done to anyone? Or is there a local person knowledgable about these things who could be invited to speak to the group?

But even if this happens, it is the nisteling to each woman that takes place after or separately from any such presentation that will really make the difference. If a woman feels heard about her fears and concerns, she will be more likely to consider changing her mind.

Would it be possible to have women sit down and talk together about the subject ‘Time to stop FGM?’ As women who think that FGM should be continued talk about their response to this subject, it will be increasingly obvious what scares them. It might be fear of being considered ‘less of a woman’ but there will be many fears for each of them no doubt, such as the fear that they won’t be able to find a husband, the fear that they won’t be able to do certain things and so on.

The important point is that whatever fears each woman has, they each need to be acknowledged, perhaps with a reflection such as ‘You sound scared that women who don’t have FGM won’t be able to marry’. And then the woman or women in this category need to be encouraged to feel their fear. Fear is sometimes easy to recognize and sometimes not. If someone cannot tell they are scared, it might help them to focus on their body: ‘Do you feel any tension in your body?’, ‘Do you feel any pain?’, ‘Can you focus on feeling that tension/pain?’

Questions like these might help a woman to focus on a feeling that she has long noticed but not labeled for what it is. Focusing on the part of her body that is tense or in pain, will enable her to more easily access the fear that the tension or pain is concealing. It may well bring up a childhood memory of something that scared her. If this happens the woman should be encouraged to talk about this experience so that the fear and other feelings (such as anger and sadness) get the chance to be expressed while someone is nisteling. For more information about this process, see ‘Putting Feelings First’.

Anyway, as I hope you understand, while people are scared, their beliefs and attitudes about certain things are ‘locked in place’ and unlikely to change. But, if they feel their fear until it becomes less or goes away, they will suddenly find that they can ‘see things differently’.

Feeling this fear until it goes away might take considerable time and might even need ongoing time spread over many sessions.

But for deeply entrenched beliefs such as ‘FGM is an important cultural practice’, the belief is highly unlikely to change without feeling the (always unconscious) fear that holds it in place.

One thing that you and others might find useful to know is this: The people who hold most strongly to the view that FGM must be done are the ones who are most scared. It might not look like this but it is always true: the people who are least able to consider a different way of seeing things are the ones who are most scared.

Consequently, these people need the most and best nisteling.



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