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Story Publication logo November 20, 2015

Malian Migrants: Navigating Female Genital Cutting Across Borders

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Image by Kateri Donahoe. Mali, 2015.
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Female genital cutting affects more than nine out of ten of women in Mali. Those working to end the...

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Fanta Cissé has worked as a magnambaga—a sexual guide for young newlyweds—for most of her life. Image by Kateri Donahoe. Mali, 2015.

In the ever-globalizing world, migrants often must straddle the vast cultural differences between where they are coming from and where they end up. Malian migrants, and women in particular, face the unique challenge of navigating the laws and beliefs regarding female genital cutting in their new homeland and the traditional requirements of their mother country.

Awa [who asked to have her last name withheld] lives in France with her husband and three children. She moved there five years ago from Mali, leaving behind most of her friends and family. While pregnant with her second child, Awa went in for a gynecological visit and was questioned by the French nurse about her experience with female genital cutting (FGC). She could not answer many of the nurse's questions because she could not remember being cut. It was done to her, without her parents' consent, when she was born. However, Awa knows that many of the difficulties she has faced in her marriage and sexual life stem from FGC.

On Awa's wedding night, she and her husband were unable to have sexual intercourse because of the scar tissue she had developed from being cut. The very next day, she went to the hospital and underwent a procedure to make intercourse possible. Although her husband was sympathetic to her pain and wanted to wait, the traditional sexual guides, or "magnambagas," who are charged with helping the newlyweds during their first sexual encounters, insisted that they try intercourse again less than two days later.

Speaking through a translator, Awa says that throughout her marriage she had no sexual desire—sex became a struggle for her and her husband. At the gynecological visit, after examining her, the French nurse suggested something revolutionary: There was a doctor in France who specialized in reconstructive surgery for women who had undergone FGC, and Awa could have the procedure if she wished.

Awa discussed this with her husband, received his wholehearted support, and decided that after she gave birth to her second child she would undergo the surgery to restore some of the feeling that was lost when she was cut. After a fairly short healing process, Awa says the surgery was a success: "It has changed, it's not like before. But it cannot be like it (the cutting) never happened." She says she has a desire for her husband now that was not there before and it has improved their marriage immeasurably.

Although Awa has experienced this revolution in her quality of life, she cannot share her joy with many people in her life. Some members of her family would be scandalized knowing that she undid a procedure so essential to their culture.

When she returns home to Mali to visit her family, she must also remain vigilant of her daughters' safety. It is common for girls to be taken to the cutter by their grandmothers or other older women of the family while the mother is absent or distracted. Awa is determined not to let this happen; she says solemnly and without a hint of exaggeration, "If anyone touches my daughters, I will kill them."

Because of the care she received in France, Awa was able to take back some control of her body that had been unavailable to her in her previous life. She could undo some of the damage of FGC from her past and now she is adamant about preventing that pain in her daughters' lives.

If her daughters were cut against her will, Awa might face legal ramifications when she returned home to France. The French government has taken a fairly strong stance on FGC, criminalizing the practice on French soil as well as prosecuting parents who send their daughters abroad to undergo "vacation cutting," with the possibility of up to 20 years in jail and substantial fines.

Masega Diallo, of the Office Français de l'Immigration et l'Intégration or OFII (French Office for Immigration and Integration) in Bamako, Mali, works to sensitize emigrating Malians to the laws and customs of France and the cultural differences surrounding FGC, often running up against criticism from her fellow Malians. "We have verbal abuse, very often by the men. But with women, they very quickly understand why they suffer from infections and pain during sex."

Masega says that, despite the work she does with the migrants, France and Mali generally do not talk openly about this issue in regards to diplomacy, likely because their laws and beliefs are in direct conflict. It is up to organizations like OFII to prepare Malian emigrants to France for the different beliefs they will find in regards to FGC. They must stress the consequences if they do get caught continuing the practice in their families.

Malian migrants in the U.S. face many of the same issues. Mariam [whose name has been changed to protect her privacy] currently resides in the U.S. with her husband and daughter but visits Mali often to see her family. When she returns, she must battle with her mother and other female family members who want to see her daughters cut. For Mariam, the "vacation cutting" laws on the books in the U.S. have been her saving grace.

While back in Mali, she recounted, "She (my mother) thinks they have to be excised. One week ago, she told me, because I was here with my husband, she say 'When your husband will go, we will excise your daughter.' And I say 'If you do it, when I go to the U.S. with my daughter, I will be (put) in jail for all of my life. So if you want to have a daughter in jail for all of her life, so do it.' She said 'Really?' and I said 'Yes… they will take me and you will never, never see me. So you can decide.'"

Mariam's courage to stand up to her mother is uncommon and is unfortunately impossible for many Malian women. "If you are very young, you can't know what's true or what's just a speculation. You think that everything your mother or your grandmother told you, that this thing is true," Mariam said. Even the women who know the consequences of cutting and wish to spare their daughters often do not have the power to refuse their elders within the Malian familial power structure.

By a lucky turn of events, Mariam was not cut when she was younger. She was taken to the cutter, but for some reason unknown to Mariam, the cutter skipped over her. She thinks that if her family found out about this, they would shun her. "They would think that I am not clean… And I am very sure, I am 100 percent sure that my mother would ask me to do it now."

Both of these women have been able to use the laws and protections awarded to them by their new countries to save their daughters. In this sense, "vacation cutting" laws are a reasonable way for these countries to prevent FGC and punish those who impose this pain on their young female citizens.

However, these laws do not account for the power dynamics at play when Malians return home to visit family—a legal and cultural disconnect that causes many migrants to obscure their true feelings about the practice and hide their experiences in repairing or avoiding the damage of being cut.

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