It was 1:40pm. Fatima, the local guide I worked with while staying in Conakry, Guinea, and I traveled to the headquarters for Today's Women International Network. Otherwise known as TWIN, the organization works to support women’s empowerment in Africa. We drove through the dusty roads to pick up Pauline Tolno, who does outreach for the organization and counsels women and girls about the dangers of Female Genital Cutting.
Female Genital Cutting, also known as FGC, is practiced around the world. It holds great importance for people of many cultures, including in my reporting location, the West African nation of Guinea, where FGC has been practiced for over 2,000 years.
FGC can have fatal health complications, such as hemorrhaging, death during childbirth, the transmission of HIV, and other infections. In many cases, FGC removes a woman’s ability to experience any kind of sexual pleasure, making sexual intercourse painful for the remainder of her life. The practice is also rarely consensual, a truth that I would hear about first-hand later that day. Both the World Health Organization and United Nations have condemned the practice as a violation of the human rights and health of women and girls.
Pauline, Fatima, and I drove for 45 minutes through heavy traffic and into increasingly bumpy roads to the outskirts of Conakry. We parked and entered the back of a building, where Pauline led us up two flights of concrete stairs.
On the second story, we walked straight into the Training and Literacy Learning Center, an active, bustling room, full of girls of all ages—from infants being swaddled by their mothers to schoolgirls to middle-aged women—many of whom were hard at work sewing on industrial-era sewing machines. Laughter echoed through the air as the women shouted to each other across the room.
From the hubbub emerged the woman responsible for the entire organization—Aissatou Diallo, a mere 27 years old.
She was the first woman I interviewed at the center about her experience with FGC, and what struck me the most about her throughout our conversations was her courage and blunt honesty.
Aissatou was 11 when she was kidnapped in broad daylight by her mother’s friend and taken to the forest to be cut. She said she bled so much that her family was forced to take her to the nearest hospital. After she was married, she discovered that she was physically incapable of having sex. She and her husband went to the gynecologist, who told them she would have to undergo surgery. She said that it took five days for her to recover from the surgery. Today, sex is still so painful that she sobs every time.
“I have never felt pleasure with my husband,” Aissatou confided to me. “I would do anything to be able to feel pleasure while having sex with my husband. I have lost something great.”
The second person I interviewed was an 18-year-old girl. She preferred to speak anonymously, but said she was from the forest region of Guinea. This part of Guinea, often referred to as “Guinée forestière,” was referenced to me many times throughout my stay as the place where women suffered the “worst of the worst” of FGC in Guinea.
This young girl told me about her cutting: She was held down and blindfolded, and in addition, as was customary in the region, was cut not once but twice (the second time after the first cutting had begun to heal). Near the end of our conversation, she lifted up her shirt to show me something—on the lower half of her back, she was covered with approximately 20 small half-inch marks. The marks did not appear to have any particular order and appeared to have been haphazardly administered. These marks, she explained, served as a kind of branding that indicated that she had been cut. I did not—and still do not—have the words to express the pain and sadness I felt upon seeing the marks etched across her back.
I also spoke to Aissatou about the community that she’s built in Guinea, and how she is accomplishing her goal of teaching women employable skills so that they can learn self-reliance and independence in a deeply patriarchal society. Aissatou has dedicated her life to providing a space for girls to overcome their trauma and find connections and friendships—and that’s truly beautiful.
Editor's note: Interview translation from French to English was provided by Fatima-Ezzahra Bendami.