International Day of the Girl: Toward Ending FGM with Dr. Josephine Kulea at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Kulea Poster corrected

AS you will note, I have the honor of convening a presentation by Samburu Girls Foundation founder Dr. Josephine Kulea on October 17 at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The Samburu, like the Maasai, are semi-nomadic tribes whose girls experience a higher rate of FGM than the Kenyan average. “According to the Kenya Demographic Household Survey of 2014, some 78 percent of Maasai women and 86 percent of Samburu women between the ages of 15 and 49, have been mutilated, while for Kenya’s general population the figure  stands at 21 percent.” (1)  So what is there to celebrate on this International Day of the Girl? Alternative Rites of Passage have taken hold, pioneered by many dedicated NGOs. “Already more than 13,300 Maasai and Samburu girls have avoided FGM.” (2)

Although Kenya has indeed shown progress, there remains a great deal still to do.

UnCUT/VOICES’ author Maria Kiminta, in another excerpt from our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, offers reflections on what is holding the status quo in place and setting limits on girls’ growing freedom from the blade.

Kimiinta Cover (2)

The custom banned, and yet … Despite Kenya’s passage of The Children’s Act of 2001 to protect the young from harmful cultural practices and the nation’s president having condemned FGM in 1983, the practice goes on. Similarly, numerous NGOs and human rights activists excoriate FGM internationally and within Kenya as a violation of human rights, yet little progress has been made. FGM remains prevalent and requires a more integrated approach.  For in fact, the Children’s Act of 2001, now in place for over a decade, has not prevented it. Its tenacious hold on tradition remains, especially among pastoral groups. And even worse, the elders of my community, in obvious defiance on hearing the edict, issued a statement to the authorities. Protesting that female ‘circumcision’ is a cultural right reserved exclusively by the tribe, they warned the central government that it had no business telling them to stop.

As a Maasai who knows all too well the effects of FGM, I feel obliged to tell not only the Maasai elders but the world about the harm girl children suffer, including me. … From my experience as a ten-year-old, I bear witness to the fact that FGM is not only traumatic but also perilous; it can bring life-long pain, suffering, and even death to girls. I would like to see the Maasai community conserve our rich culture. Let’s keep rituals, feasting and blessings on initiates but stop – full stop! — cutting genitalia.

The significance of FGM to the Maasai community. As a Maasai, I have been raised to feel great respect for our culture, and although female ‘circumcision’ is claimed by some, even among us, to be an outdated practice, it remains difficult for many to leave a way of life and adopt a new one, especially since, thus far, Maasai customs as a whole have survived largely intact. If FGM were not so tightly woven into the traditional fabric, convincing us to stop might be easier. But this magnitude of change would seem possible only with patience over the long run. …

I paused at this point in my writing, overcome by a sense of malaise, wondering how to address a tricky issue of pride. You’ll agree, of course, that the Maasai regard female ‘circumcision’ differently from the rest of the world, but the fact that we practice it, I must insist, does not make us lesser people. Our traditional ways of thinking have taught us that FGM is positive; that it improves a child’s life. From the Maasai perspective, then, the time-honored practice has the following aims.

A wrong rite of passage. The primary reason the Maasai give for FGM is its use as a rite of passage from immaturity to womanhood, making a girl ready for marriage. As you have already read, we young children were made to believe a ‘circumcised’ girl ripens, gains in obedience, and becomes aware of her role in the family and society as a whole. We also learn that once ‘circumcised’ we would enjoy the respect of our elders and peers since despite our tender years, we would no longer count as kids.

How, exactly, are these rewards presented? Before the procedure, girls are brought together daily, inspired not to fear, and assured that the most heroic will reap the best gifts. Initiates are also told that young men and their families will be watching and select wives only from among the most courageous. Thus, aspiration to be chosen by influence and wealth creates devotees of the ordeal.  My feeling was that stakes like these propelled FGM beyond the status of a mere tradition; instead, as a lifestyle, its culmination in a show of heroism would also make me a hero for life. After all, the cutting isn’t even the most spectacular of the day’s events. Rather, festivities are boundless, and the whole village celebrates a girl’s passage to maturity, her accession to another level of existence.

Now, parents make most decisions, but in some cases girls beg to be ‘done’ earlier, giving in to peer pressure, ridicule and insults. Elders would warn those just circumcised to remain steadfast. “Don’t ever reveal your ordeal,” they were told. Instead, they were exhorted to motivate us to face the knife in silence, as they, ideally, had done. So whenever we asked them, “What was it like?” they would lie. “It was fine,” they’d say. “Everything’s ok,” and push us away. They would show us the gifts they had received and describe how everyone was ululating, dancing and praising them for their great achievement. They would also mock us and call us ‘babies’ because we had not yet confronted what they had. It was even more hurtful because girls we used to play with were now telling us to get lost.  “Babies like you are beneath us,” they scoffed.

Sadly, their strategy worked. Most of us felt irritated enough to swear to join in the following season, but really, all we wanted was to escape the taunting and humiliation.

In the past, Maasai girls had been ‘circumcised’ at 17 or 18 years old, the age when a girl was considered ready for marriage. But now, victims are between 8 and 15. Why? The trend can be attributed to parental worry about girls becoming sexually active, sometimes as young as ten, thus increasing the risk of pregnancy before being cut — a community taboo.

Kiminta dreamyFurthermore, the clitoris itself is blamed. Considered an aggressive appendage, local belief holds that it threatens the male organ and even endangers babies during delivery. How are neonates imperiled? The baby’s head touching the mother’s clitoris will, it is thought, lower the child’s IQ.  Consequently, villagers consider the girl with a clitoris ‘unclean’ and unmarriageable. Anyone keeping her genital intact poses a threat, ultimately fatal to a man whose manhood might brush against her clit.  In fact, so dangerous does she appear that the Council of Elders has passed a ruling: pregnancy before ‘circumcision’ makes the girl an outcast ineligible ever to marry in the tribe.  Her choices are restricted to men from other groups. So, partly to prevent such tragic consequences of promiscuity, candidates for cutting are less often teens and more likely to be increasingly younger girls.

Another reason, however, for the cut is poverty. Because dowry can change hands only after ‘circumcision’, no matter the age of the betrothed, parents book their girls off for marriage to start receiving the bride price. The amputation tells suitors when to start instalments which, once paid up, entitle them to come and get their spouse. This is done in an orderly manner giving the mother time to teach the (too) young intended how to treat a man. And even if already wedded, the teen can remain in her parents’ home for as long as five more years.

Still another motive behind the downward trend in age is that children under ten are hardly old enough to refuse nor strong enough to resist. At the same time, they are coming increasingly to know their rights, and maybe a hint of insipient rebellion is also making initiates younger.

For parents have begun to apply an ironic and misguided viewpoint; they contend that smaller kids suffer fewer traumas. Whether true or not, escaping notice is important as well, for, as we have seen, the government made FGM illegal under the Children’s Act of 2001.

What really baffles me is how aware I am of just such motives, older people seducing children into undergoing rites of passage whose actual benefit accrues to the grown-ups in the form of wealth. Offspring bear the consequences since whatever they go through violates children’s rights including their right to health, freedom, security and protection.

  1.  Retrieved 11 October 2017.
  2. Ibid.

You can order Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. A Memoir and Source Book (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015) for a discount by writing to


On Teaching about FGM

Speech announcement 27, 28, 29 September MA

Ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Requires Support For Community Activists

Hilary’s support of funding for smaller NGOs, generally more intimately linked to practicing communities than many larger ones, is timely and crucial. With me, Hilary penned the AfterWords to UnCUT/VOICES’ latest book, Kameel Ahmady’s _In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran_

Hilary Burrage

Today I published a piece in the Huffington Post entitled The ‘Cuts’ And ‘Cutting’ – And So Female Genital Mutilation Continues In The UK.  The eradication of FGM is critically dependent not only on the skills and leverage of the leading organisations in the field, but also on the goodwill and support of activists in their communities.  Often these activists report that their work is not resourced and that they are therefore unable to deliver the #EndFGM message as they would wish – a matter of especial importance when ‘vacation cutting’ is about to start.

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Female Genital Mutilation: An Educational Challenge

On March 10, 2017, in the Mary O’Brien room at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, scholars and activists focused intently on Four specific Challenges to Ending FGM: Medicalization, Female Genital (Cosmetic) Surgery, Asylum, and (Lack of) Education (about FGM) … Co-sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre  and the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK charity commission # 1169186), the workshop enhanced knowledge that can improve quality of life, especially for girls under threat of FGM.

Body art protest against FGM

Body art protest against FGM

16 June 2017, which is commemorated as the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE AFRICAN CHILD, called on civil society to reconsider African girls’ well-being. Why June 16? In 1991, in response to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 in which the government attacked South African youth demonstrating peacefully against apartheid education, the Organization of African Unity reserved that date for global reflection on action to better children’s lifetime opportunities. Specifically, a non-violent protest against the additional requirement of Afrikaans together with English as the language of instruction was brutally disrupted. Behind student discontent was surely the Bantu Education Act of 1953, conceived by its author H. F. Verwoerd as an exclusionary, separate and UNequal measure: ‘There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community’.” [See] [Retrieved 16 june 2017]

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow from a brilliant English novelist, that moral education is central to development, and even more so to disarm racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny behind the wide-spread abuse of genital mutilation.

At the Oxford workshop session on education chaired by Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Professor Hazel Barrett of Coventry University presented the EU-sponsored REPLACE 2 project that evaluated interventions to change behavior, — that is, to end FGM –, in Diaspora communities in Europe. By educating change agents, i.e. ethnic insiders, and enabling them to coordinate educational activities with community members, REPLACE 2 followed up the pilot REPLACE 1 that looked at FGM intervention in the European Diaspora  in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Pedagogy was pivotal. Kate Agha of Oxford Against Cutting and Kameel Ahmady, author of In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES, 2016) also spoke to education, Kate outlining an art and film-making project with middle-schoolers, and Kameel revealing how epidemiological interviews correlated with a decreasing number of FGM victims. Raising the issue in a critical way serves both activism and research.

Kameel Tobe

Kameel Ahmady and Tobe Levin von Gleichen in Rome

Kate Agha
Kate Agha Oxford Against Cutting
10 March 2017
Hazel March 10
Professor Hazel Barrett at the Oxford FGM Workshop 10 March 2017

UnCUT/VOICES author Maria Kiminta agrees. In our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, education takes pride of place. We offer here the Preface and Chapter 1.




Kimiinta Cover (2)PREFACE by Maria Kiminta

Joy sat down with me when I first conceived of writing this book. Motivated by my own need for answers, I knew that others, too, wanted broader knowledge. Like me, they would welcome the chance to move beyond the static information of the past. And even if immediate success eluded me (would I find a publisher? would my writing hit the mark?), communicating what I had learned, I was bold enough to think, could alter African culture, both in the Diaspora, –including where I live, in Germany–, and in Africa. For traditions responsible for FGM and the risk it poses to girls’ health are cultural, and therefore stubborn, but culture and destiny can change. Written and spoken words, sincerity and conscientious action can realize African people’s aspirations for their children.

If coming generations are to become innovative, resourceful leaders, they need role models. I dared to use my education to become such a leader, at least insofar as memoir reaches out, explaining in this text which fixed beliefs permit the use of razors against girls and why my desire to see those girls escape the shadow of those blades can be realized after all.

When I was growing up in Kenya, I had a single option, to become someone’s wife. It was drilled into me that we are Maasai (or, speaking for my friends, Kikuyu) and … we were still a people apart. The past remained present and the present – its encroachments – were resisted. At times, these constant comparisons to the ways of life now slowly invading our domain made us feel that we were better than, although often enough less than, those practicing another culture.

Kiminta smiling 2

Maria Kiminta. Photo by Britta Radike

But the other culture’s benefits –computers, cures for diseases, kidney transplants –have made me thankful, as an African woman, for the new technology, and gratitude trusts in change.

It is the source of my yearning to liberate children, above all, from the emotional and cultural bondage that molded us and affected our whole lives. I would say to my people, please focus on today and let go of the past. Choose to alter – culture and yourselves.

Rooted as it is in the past, FGM must end.

Chapter 1

I am a Maasai, and I was subjected to female genital mutilation. Although commonly called “circumcision” by people not (yet) ready to abandon the practice, the rite involves slicing off parts of the visible female genitalia or otherwise injuring sexual organs for reasons other than malignancy, malformation or illness.  Not medically prescribed, the ‘surgery’ answers cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic mandates. Recent reports observe a shift – minor among the Maasai — towards medicalization of the process, now increasingly offered by trained personnel ostensibly to limit side effects and pain. But in case you are tempted to smile, this is not a positive development and is, in fact, strongly opposed by, among others, the Inter-African Committee.

A long-standing cultural practice, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not limited to my community but prevails equally in other pastoral ethnic groups. Although girls between four and ten are its most frequent victims, it takes place at any age from infancy through adolescence. Although thirteen to sixteen years had been preferred where I grew up, now, to avoid detection by authorities, clitoridectomy is often performed on babies.

As children, we were meant to believe that FGM is a ‘good tradition’. This would be elaborated to us by the old women and grandparents during evening story-telling where values and morals were imparted. Then we also learned that the smooth flow of a girl’s whole life depended entirely upon her undergoing FGM so that refusing became as unthinkable as the dire future predicted for the child left unshorn. Indeed, no one ever talked about what could go wrong – and certainly not the extreme pain that segues into torture. Instead everything was meant to encourage us to accept the knife, abandoning resistance or fear. And so we, too, celebrated these amputations, viewing them as bestowing on initiates increased respect and enhanced status. Showered with numerous gifts, the graduate, no longer a child, would have become a woman and an asset to the group.

Festivities for kids

During the ceremonies, we young children would be allowed to eat, feast and dance to the traditional jig whose text lauded and praised the courageous who have just been cut. Ironically, beforehand, we were never permitted anywhere near the ‘circumcision’ rooms where screams would surely have frightened us away. Nor were we allowed to visit the victims. Only after they had healed would we see them again. Otherwise, we would have known how inhumanely they had been treated. In fact, the older girls would be isolated on a different homestead far from uncircumcised children, to remain there until their bodies had mended and resumed normal function. To limit our interactions, the elders warned us that because these girls had now been turned into ‘adults’, they had become off limits to us kids. We were forbidden to mingle or play with them.

For you see, the ‘circumcised’ now belonged to a different, advanced ‘age set’. Only after we too had confronted the razor would we be permitted to fool around, hang out, or take care of chores together. Our elders told us that girls who have been ‘circumcised’ now had a special ‘status’ and deserved to be treated differently — better than the way we were treated. During recovery, they were prepared special meals, treats also promised to us once we had become candidates ourselves. Of course, this made us jealous. The favor showered on that season’s ‘chosen’ made every child long for the blade.

All these efforts that shielded us from the harsh realities of the procedure pushed us to admire and even desire it. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the elevated social status that came with it?

To understand the psychology here, you must be aware that, as kids, we were systematically humiliated in ways I now know to have gone against children’s rights. We were deceived by all means possible, tricked into loving a so-called ‘good practice’ because of its artificial ‘positive’ change.  No one ever mentioned long-term negative effects. Only afterward did reality dawn on me, and I realized that, for the girl child, adverse consequences far outweigh anything good.

Whilst an adult is free to submit herself to the ritual, a child without formed judgment never ‘consents’. She simply undergoes the mutilation (which in this case is irrevocable) while she is totally vulnerable. The child’s rights are violated since children are not consulted nor given a choice about facing the knife. Instead, for years, their minds have been manipulated by the old women who want girls to think ‘circumcision’ is what they need most in their lives.

As Maria Kiminta writes in the Afterword:

Fortunate to attend university in Nairobi, I pursued my interest in advancing women’s human rights in various villages but then traded my dream of advocating human betterment for a more pragmatic career in sales. My first job in a women’s clothing store led to engagement to the owner’s son followed by marriage and moving to Germany.  Europe has enabled me to return to my passion for helping women discover the irrelevance and detriment to health of the ritual passage so many of us had been through. I aim to promote confidence and education among Maasai girls.


For Africa Day at the University of Oxford. Poetry and Petals.

Diane discusses performance

D-Empress Dianne Regisford, performing artist, at Q & A with Erica Lombard.


The scent of crushed roses welcomed all into the hallowed space of D-Empress Dianne Regisford’s performance. To the pulse of Rev J’s drum, an imposing woman, entering the aromatic ring of strewn petals, enabled us, the audience, to “step into [our] rhythm, wear [our] crown.”

The circle nested seven sculptures. Intricate spheres, the (not quite) jack-o’-lanterns, active in stasis, hatched or housed, sheltered or evicted curling creatures. Snakes? Umbilicals? Threads that might tangle, rupture or unite? From one of the cavern-eggs, the undulating Empress gently retrieved a dried rose. What did it mean?

Diane Rev J

Musician Rev J aka Reverend Joseph Abraham. To his right above is the director of TORCH, Professor Elleke Boehmer. In the photo left, l to r, Methlyn Regisford, Dianne Regisford, Rev J.


Diane with family

The tribute by TORCH at the University of Oxford to UNESCO’s Africa Day – 25 May — had begun by evoking the sacred and profane. A series called “Great Writers Inspire at Home” showcased conversations between writers and readers.  Regisford, a local poet [1] first performed her spoken lyrics while winding among the twined, gouache globes to celebrate fecundity and conjure potent womanhood. Described in the announcement as an installation inviting “critical explorations … of ‘la femme libre’ (the liberated woman) from an African feminist perspective,” the event was inspired by “the teachings and practice of the ancient West African Mandika badjenne tradition.”

The Mandinka practice FGM [2] but in St. Luke’s Chapel, pain fled. “SSSHHH” the seer shushed, a hush soon fell and the poetry began with a “call … Not to censor/ Just to sense her.” Of “Caribbean parentage, African heritage,” the bard embodied matriarchal pride. In “Hersto-Rhetoric? Na So Today!!!” she planted awareness of the female in full flower. …

I first met Dianne at an event on FGM at Lady Margaret Hall. We were showing Nigerian artists’ oils and scupture that pictured concern for people whose metaphoric roses had been sheared. Victims, yes, but survivors above all.Taboo front cover

You meet these girls and women when Dianne performs; you encounter them again in a book from East Africa, poems and stories about FGM, edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe of the FEMRITE Women Writer’s Association in Kampala, Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015). [3] The cover by Godfrey Williams-Okorodus also shows the rose. A young woman in “Defiance” – the title of the painting – turns her back to the village, arms folded, digging in. She hopes to escape tradition, to preserve her luscious flower, but  her path is blocked by the patriarchs, ethereal figures not merely in front but also behind her, boxing her in …

By performing female strength, artists like Dianne, Violet and Hilda challenge the social arrangements under male hegemony that disempower women and girls. And so do other poets in Taboo.

In “Plucking a Rosebud,” Dorah Musiimire writes I have seen a rose bud/Ruthlessly extracted from her stalk/Forlorn with pain and shame/How villainous! …

I have also witnessed/A crest fallen stalk/Decrying the fall of her bud/ … the pride of a rose …

Yet as poet Grace Atuhaire declares I rose / Surrounded by clansmen/ With spears and knives/ ‘Make her a woman!’

I froze/ At the sound of the knives assembled/Smeared in white sand/ ‘Make her a woman!’

I shuddered /At mum’s consent/At the indifferent strangers/‘Make her a woman!’

I fled! /And stood for what was right/Ignorance makes no woman




a woman!

Grace Atuhaire. “I am already a woman!” In Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation. Eds. Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe. Foreword Rebecca Salonen. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015.

To purchase Taboo at a 40% discount, email the publisher

1 “Was I a British writer?” Dianne mused in the Q & A when invited to comment by Erica Lombard. “Until I received your invitation, I’d thought not,” she said. “Now, I think so.”

2 Mandinka practice FGM. “Overall, the main reason for coming to the hospital or health center was delivery. With regard to ethnicity, it was found that FGM/C prevalence rates were 17.5% among Wolof and 46.2% among Serer, whereas Mandinka, Fula, Sarahole and Djola ethnic groups practice FGM/C extensively, with prevalences in the range of 94.3%–96.7%.” Adriana Kaplan et al. Female genital mutilation/cutting in The Gambia: long-term health consequences and complications during delivery and for the newborn. In the International Journal of Women’s Health. 2013; 5:323-331. Published online 2013 June 17. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

3 In the Preface to Taboo, Rebecca Salonen writes: “Even if you are involved in international female genital mutilation activism, you probably have not heard much about FGM in Uganda. Among the 28 African countries where female ‘circumcision’ is performed, Uganda stands near the bottom of the FGM-prevalence list, around 5% or less. This does not mean that female genital mutilation in Uganda is not a problem, but only that the Pokot, Tepeth, and Sabiny (Sebei), out of Uganda’s 50-plus indigenous ethnic groups, practice FGM. These three groups live in remote and seasonally inaccessible regions on the eastern border with Kenya, where there are few casual visitors. Until recently, FGM was the lot of every girl in these societies, however, and the type of excision was very severe. Depending on the inspiration, ability, or eyesight of the circumciser, all of the external genitals are traditionally cut away. Most other Ugandans are horrified by the practice, and Parliament enacted the Prohibition of FGM act in 2010 …”

On the “International Day to End Obstetric Fistula” — 23 May – UnCUT/VOICES calls out failure to mention one preventable cause: FGM

The United Nations writes: “Obstetric fistula is one of the most serious and tragic injuries that can occur during childbirth. It is a hole between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without treatment.”[1] What the U.N. does not write is that female genital mutilation (FGM) increases the risk of VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula), especially in younger mothers whose pelvis is not yet mature. “The condition typically leaves women incontinent,” the UN goes on to point out, “and as a result they are often shunned by their communities … endur[ing] depression, social isolation and deepening poverty. Many … live with the condition for years – or even decades – because they cannot afford to obtain treatment.”

FRFRF Trustees
Trustees of the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund l to r Hilary Burrage, Nolan Victory, Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Dr Phoebe Abe with Dianna Martin, patients’ host in France, at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

“An estimated 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are living with this injury, and some 50,000 to 100,000 new cases develop each year.”

Granted, not all of these females have also suffered FGM. Fistula, for instance, had been a nineteenth century problem in the USA and Europe.[2] Nonetheless, the UN falls short of its own mission, not merely to repair but also to PREVENT this dismal outcome. Comforting readers by assuring us that “fistula is almost entirely preventable,” the UN offers a wholly inadequate explanation. “Its persistence is a sign that health systems are failing to meet women’s essential needs.” They are indeed remiss by not financing operations that sufferers desperately need. But burying FGM, a human-authored scourge, behind impersonal ‘systems’ does a disservice to the aim of abolition.

Admittedly, of course, the international body intends to prevent: “In its resolution A/RES/67/147, the General Assembly calls on the international community to use the International Day to significantly raise awareness and intensify actions towards ending obstetric fistula.”

UnCUT/Voices is answering this call with an excerpt from prize-winning novelist Hubert Prolongeau’s ground-breaking biography, Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. Foreword Bernard Kouchner. Trans. and Afterword Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011. The following passages from Chapter 3, “His first patient,” provide a prologue to the discovery of clitoral restoration.

“Mission fistula”

[Jean-Antoine ] Robein [a pioneering physician] convinces his friend to join him in the battle to prevent and cure this curse. Looking for teams of African physicians able to deal with fistula, they find only two: one led by Dr. Hamelin in Addis Ababa, the other by Dr. Ben Chekroun in Rabat, and that won’t do! So they separate to pay both men a visit. Robein leaves for Addis, Foldes for Rabat, to learn to repair such harsh trauma. They bring videos with them. Later, the head of Foch Hospital will invest the first days of retirement in editing a handbook on fistula. Undoing cover

Pierre lands in Rabat, suave Moroccan capital, discrete and charming little sister to the booming Casablanca. He finds Dr. Ben Chekroun, a specialist in urology who studied at Pierre’s alma mater and did his residency at Necker Hospital. The man is not without enemies. In the public eye, he has been subject to more than a little jealousy. Surgeon to the king, the royal family’s urologist, lifetime member of the French Association of Urology, he lives in a house in Rabat that shares a wall with the sister of Hassan II – all this to say he’s beyond reach. And he knows it. He’s a mandarin but very open to other elites, and this includes Foldes who, in spite of himself, feels close to Chekroun because Chekroun isn’t one of the privileged who just sits on a pension. He’s inventive, trying to import urological techniques from Europe. Faced with various kinds of urinary cancer, a type of pathology frequent in Africa, he adapted the art of the stoma or artificial opening to local conditions. To overcome the absence of disposable pouches he pioneered a subcutaneous technique without a pouch using catheters that could be reused after sterilization by immersion in alcohol, a thoroughly empirical procedure. “We modified modern processes to serve African realities instead of buying expensive materials that proved useless. The approach really impressed me. How often had I seen the opposite result, instruments left untouched. What a monstrous waste.”

After fine-tuning the urological procedure, Ben Chekroun then turned to fistula; he invented an artificial urethra, constructed from the remaining tissue of the vagina or urethra to recreate a conduit. Together with Foldes, he would describe and inventory repair techniques that had not existed before and produced a manual with which to confront the damage. “It was a passionate inversion of the usual North-South dialogue. We went South not as scalpel musketeers carrying the good news of Northern medical advances. No. This time Africans knew what to do, and we descended upon them to learn, to imitate and witness our two kinds of knowledge embrace for the benefit of sufferers everywhere. It’s a magnificent way to work.” The two men would go on to make films about their mutual experience; these would be shown in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Robein later asked Pierre to join him in launching “fistula missions.” They decided to leave for Africa, Jean-Antoine for Ethiopia, Mali and Niger where he would focus on hospitals, and Pierre for Morocco and Burkina Faso. The WHO commissioned the project to evaluate treatments possible in rural maternity clinics, seek out midwives’ networks, and evaluate their training and mortality figures. Yet, as his plane was landing in Ouagadougou, Dr. Foldes remained unaware of how what he was soon to find would change his life.

The next section, The Ouaga Patient, records Foldes’ meeting with the woman who leads him to discover that clitoral function can be restored. This triumph, in turn, has benefited more than 5000 women and is the main subject of Hubert Prolongeau’s book.

Books, of course, address a reading public. Broader approaches imply personal outreach and for that, the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (CRFRF) (UK charity # 1169186) was created.

For further information about the fund or to order the book at a 40% discount, email Tobe Levin von Gleichen     or


[1] Retrieved 23 May 2017.

[2] See for instance Ojanuga, D. The medical ethics of the ‘father of gynaecology’, Dr J Marion Sims. Abstract: “Vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) was a common ailment among American women in the 19th century. Prior to that time, no successful surgery had been developed for the cure of this condition until Dr J Marion Sims perfected a successful surgical technique in 1849. Dr Sims used female slaves as research subjects over a four-year period of experimentation (1845-1849). This paper discusses the controversy surrounding his use of powerless women and whether his actions were acceptable during that historical period.” Retrieved 23 May 2017.


International Day of the Midwife, and the cutter once imprisoned who now campaigns to end FGM

“I met many FGM survivors who ended up as sex workers to pay for their health care #obamacare was a life saver #shocked #disappointed.” Leyla Hussein, Tweet, 4 May 2017.

Image result for linda weil-curiel

Dr. Pierre Foldes with Linda Weil-Curiel, both associated with the Institut en Santé génésique in St. Germain-en-Laye near Paris


How ironic that “repeal and replace” – a bill in the US legislature that passed yesterday — should emerge on the doorstep of the “International Day of the Midwife,” today, May 5,  launched in 1992 by the International Confederation of Midwives. Similarly paradoxical is the Exciseuse coverassociation of midwifery with FGM. “Daya,” for instance, the Egyptian woman who amputates the clitoris, is translated as ‘midwife’ by Nawal el Saadawi,[1] and, in fact, benevolent and less benign duties concerning gynecological and obstetric health are her concern. Perhaps not coincidentally, an episode on FGM in the UK’s TV series Call the Midwife, whose screenplay benefited from Nimko Ali’s guidance, is airing this week in the USA.

But what has UnCUT/VOICES Press to do specifically with midwives?

The editorial project was inspired by three French volumes of highest quality neglected for years by anglophone publishers, thereby depriving English-speaking readers of their insights, and one is about a notorious and eventually laudatory midwife. These texts, translated by Tobe Levin, include Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny, Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. (Mutilée, 2005; English 2010); Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris (Victoire sur l’Excision, 2006; English 2011); and Natasha Henry, Linda Weil-Curiel with Hawa Gréou, “If only I had known!” Confessions of a Cutter (Exciseuse, 2006; English unpublished). Sadly, disagreement among the authors and CityEditions prevented this manuscript from appearing in English. But that’s no reason for the entire content to languish unseen, important as it is in efforts to end FGM.

Naana and Linda Rome

Naana Otoo-Oyortey, executive director of FORWARD (UK) and Linda Weil-Curiel in Rome, January 2017


Hence, below you will find excerpts from the Preface to Exciseuse. Entretiens avec Hawa Gréou translated by Tobe Levin:

November 16, 1984  … In Paris, a tenant on the rue de Montreuil wrote her landlord to inform him that in the Gréou’s flat, just on the other side of the wall, she could hear atrocious infant howls, truly horrifying cries.

Her letter read: “I had always noticed that whenever the first wife was around, they received a lot of African visitors who then left with crying babies all wrapped up.  Sometimes the line was so long it extended down the stairs. I always wondered what was making the children bawl like that as their parents carried them away. They were truly piercing shrieks.” So shrill that the writer added, “A heart condition made hearing those cries truly distressing so, to avoid falling ill, on those afternoons I felt obliged to leave the house.”

The police were called, but, at the Gréou’s, they found nothing amiss.

Several months later, in March 1985, the PMI of Yvelines also alerted the authorities: a baby had just been hospitalized for a botched excision. Her parents had emigrated from Mauritania. When interrogated by child protection, the father gave the exciser’s name: Hawa Gréou.

In 1994, Hawa Gréou received a one-year suspended sentence.

July 31, 1993

Paris. The very day she turned eighteen, young Mariatou left her parents’ home, took her things to a friend’s and then sought out the juvenile court judge. She was asking for justice in the form of some sort of protection for her younger sisters. She had left for fear of a forced marriage and worried about the smaller girls. At the same time, she revealed that both she and her other sisters had been excised. Later she would also give the exciser’s name: Hawa Gréou.

In 1999, as a result of the spectacular trial launched by Mariatou’s revelations, Hawa Gréou was sentenced to eight years in prison.   

The remarkable aspect of this tale is its dénouement. After serving, ‘Mama’ Gréou emerged from prison, appeared in the prosecutor’s office, took a seat and confessed to Linda Weil-Curiel that she had changed her mind. She understood that FGM was wrong and began to campaign against it.

The context of this historic, and to date unprecedented, story emerges from the Table of Contents which includes

It all began down there ° Female sexual mutilation: A social issue ° Hawa Gréou, ten years of excision in France ° A spectacular trial ° The attorney who prosecutes excision ° Dialogue between Linda Weil-Curiel and Hawa Gréou ° Marriage without love ° Excision in France ° Prison ° The Trial ° Excision today ° “Forced marriages” ° Girls and Teens in France Today ° Concerning female genitalia ° Zero Tolerance

Like Hawa Gréou, midwives can be a force for change in efforts to counteract  medicalization  (so-called ‘benign’ nicks) and prevent continued damage to girls’ genitalia.

I welcome further inquiries from anglophone readers unable to deal with the French text.   or

[1] Retrieved 5 May 2017.