06 avril 2012

An awful sound

Note: today’s post is on a difficult topic. Skip it if you have a weak stomach.

Today, I was meeting with my homologue for lunch at his house when we heard the most godawful noise coming from the houses across the street. It sounded exactly like someone torturing a small child, and the screams were frankly horrific. Despite that, I tried to ignore the noise at first, since I thought it was just someone slowly bludgeoning a baby goat to death[1]. But when the noise continued for another ten minutes, I realized it was something else entirely.

I was hearing my first excision (female circumcision)[2].

For those of you who may not know, excision is the practice of partially or entirely cutting off the external female genitalia. It is practiced widely throughout Africa and the Middle East, and it is estimated that between 65-75% of all women in Burkina Faso have undergone the procedure, with rates en brousse and among the less educated hovering near 100%. There are 3 types: Type I, in which only the clitoral hood and clitoris are removed, Type II, which removes the inner labia as well, and Type III which removes all external features and leaves only a small fused hole for urination and menstruation. The most prevalent type here in Burkina is Type II, and from the duration of the screams it would seem likely that this is what I was listening to.

Believe it or not, the major problem with excision isn’t that it occurs; yes, the removal of one’s genitals seems like a horrific act, but a person is after all free to do whatever they like with their body. No, the problem is the conditions in which it occurs: it’s all but universally performed on underage girls who have no way to provide informed consent, it’s almost always performed without anesthesia of any sort, and it’s generally performed by untrained amateurs using unsterilized knives, scissors, glass, razor blades, or whatever else cutting implement is to hand. As you might expect, the rate of death, sterilization, and horrific side effects is high, and the medical justification for such an act is nil.

Unsurprisingly, excision is illegal in all but a handful of the countries in which it occurs, and equally unsurprisingly, these laws are or more or less ignored, although they are occasionally enforced. For this reason, such procedures generally take place at night and in great secrecy. This is the one thing that makes me question what I heard, and wonder if maybe I misunderstood.

I’m sorry…I’ll try to provide more on this topic later, but right now I’m just too upset to focus on writing. Those sounds were truly horrible.


[1] This isn’t as callous as you might think. There are lots of goats here, baby goats sound disturbingly like small children (hence the name kid), and, well…food animals in developing nations rarely die quickly, cleanly, painlessly, or with anything approaching dignity. Unfortunately, there’s little to do about it but look the other way and hope it’s over soon; after all, once you hear the screaming, it’s already too late…

[2] It’s generally known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the west, but excision is the local term, so I use it here.