What about the girls? On 16 June 2019, Day of the African Child

“Through the half-shattered prison window I could hear the whizzing wind and see the senseless heavy rain. … An overwhelming and profound anguish clouded my thoughts. What would life for a young African Muslim girl be like after this curse? What would become of me?”

In the memoir Swimming in a Red Sea, the young teen Lawrelynd Bowin, in Guinea-Conakry, muses on her fate, having inadvertently rebelled against the authority of the patriarchs, in this case her uncle and father. What had landed her in jail? Being caught out at night with a neighbor, Clay, who transgressed not only by his maleness but also by his Christianity. And the kids had been enjoying a mild flirtation – over a game of Scrabble! Nonetheless, leaving the room, dancing in the downpour, missing a last ‘decent’ option for Lawrelynd to return home, she’s captured by the jackhammer of masculine control, for if she’s with a boy, the sexist logic goes, it’s for one thing only: to lose her virginity in a society that values female sexual inexperience, i.e. ‘purity’ above much else. The seeds of human rights abuses against girls are firmly planted in this soil. Hence, to punish her, she (and, in fairness, the boy as well) are delivered by her uncle and father to the local lock-up where, in fact, she is raped by the female warden’s husband. “He likes young virgin girls … [and] dislikes women with wide holes,” the devastated jailkeeper, deeply saddened by what had occurred, tells the prisoner.

One reason frequently given for FGM is the (male) obsession with virginity. Obliterate female desire with excision; create male peace of mind. And marrying off a girl when still a child answers to the same fear. If she’s, say, only 14 years old, as Khady was (in Blood Stains), chances are far better that she arrives at the wedding ‘unspoiled’. The stories from Uganda, in Taboo, frequently recycle this motif: to dispel the ‘urge’, girls are cut.

Now, in 2019, the Day of the African Child has been themed “Humanitarian Action in Africa: Children’s Rights First” and calls specifically for reinforced protection in crisis situations, distinguishing vulnerability occasioned by state-authored aggression from the everyday where FGM takes place. And they apply a gendered lens. In their pamphlet, the African Union and African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) call on member nations to take  action against “Violations [that] include failure to provide education, health or an adequate standard of living for children to enjoy their rights, and … may affect boys and girls differently. For example, boys may, to a great extent be subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and other inhuman treatment and forced recruitment; while girls often suffer slavery, sexual exploitation like forced marriages, physical and sexual violations like rape and forced prostitution during or after a crisis.” [https://www.acerwc.africa/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Concept-Note-Day-of-the-African-Child-DAC-2019_Final.pdf Accessed 16 June 2019]

I commend UNICEF and the UNHCR for their concern. I see a problem, however, in the on-going ‘crisis situation’ facing African girls threatened by or having undergone FGM, often under the aegis of anticipatory ‘protection’ from their own waywardness and the danger to elders’ reputation, not to the girls’ bodily harm, incurred in defloration, especially when the young woman is an underaged child. I’ve searched the official document issued for the Day of the African Child and found neither FGM nor any of its possible, if unsatisfactory, synonyms. Yes, I admit, war, expulsion, and forced migration are crisis situations of heightened magnitude, but UN agencies are derelict in their duty when failing to urge protection for girls at risk of FGM.

At least a young generation of African activists is looking after the interests of girl children and assuring that they grow up free from genital assault. As Oulimata Sarr has tweeted, today is the “ouverture du Sommet Africain sur l’excision et le marriage des enfants à Dakar. Les jeunes et les survivantes ont la parole” [Oulimata Sarr @OulimataSarr] Today marks the opening of the African Summit on FGM and Child Marriage in Dakar where youth and survivors take the floor. And Nimco Ali applauds, noting how she is “crying with pride,” on seeing for the first time “so many incredible activists in one room.” She praises @JahaEndFGM and her association @SafeHands4Girls. What accounts for the present success? After Dukureh launched a petition calling on President Obama to undertake a demographic survey of FGM survivors and at risk girls in the USA, Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian took notice. The Guardian newspaper had become the first such entity in the world to offer comprehensive coverage to campaigns against FGM, trekking to Africa often in order to train budding journalists and encourage action. Dukureh, a Gambian immigrant to the USA with a forceful and courageous demeanor, was chosen as spokesperson for what has since become the Global Media Campaign against FGM. In preparation, O’Kane played a major role in organizing and sponsoring the First U.S. FGM Summit in Washington DC, December 1st and 2nd, 2016, at which I represented UnCUT/VOICES Press.

Special pleasure derives, however, from the present Summit being “African-led,” the very dream Efua Dorkenoo had when, one week before she died on 18 October 2014, funding came through for her ‘baby’, The Girl Generation.  UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is attending the gathering in Dakar, acknowledges broad sponsorship by “the governments of Senegal and Gambia in partnership with the Big Sisters movement and the NGO @SafeHands4Girls led by UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador Jaha Dukureh, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, and the World Bank.” [http://africa.unwomen.org/en/news-and-events/stories/2019/06/un-women-executive-director-to-attend-the-1st-african-summit-on-fgm-and-child-marriage-in-senegal Accessed 16 June 2019].

From 10-15 February 1979, the passionate if at times gruff investigator whose life mission was to end FGM, Fran Hosken (1920-2006), invited by the office of WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean, gave the keynote speech for the World Health Organization: Seminar on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, another first on FGM in Alexandria, Egypt. She looked forward to precisely the kinds of cooperation and linkages among governments, civil society, survivors, donors, and media across generations that is being enacted today in Dakar.

With thanks to Hilary Burrage. See https://hilaryburrage.com/2016/12/02/first-u-s-fgm-summit-washington-dc-december-1st-and-2nd-2016/ Accessed 16 June 2019.]

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