Ms. Dona Tchamo, 67 years old, is a divorced mother of four adult children who lives in Bafata, Guinea Bissau. Dona is a former practitioner of FGM who now works with Plan to advocate against the practice. Here she tells her story...
“For many years, I practiced with the knife – female genital mutilation (FGM) – on girls. Sometimes, I’d travel far from my village to perform ceremonies on girls, as far away as Senegal or Mauritania. FGM can mean the total removal of all external genitalia, or partial removal. Either is part of the process towards womanhood.
Being subjected to the knife is viewed as proper; a good tradition and a rite of passage and acceptance by many communities. I am Muslim and for many years, this practice was forced upon Muslim women. But now many see it as part of their tradition and culture; they accept it, proudly subjecting their young daughters to the knife.
When I was a girl, we always looked forward to the knife ceremonies in my village. There would be great festivities when a girl was to enter womanhood that would culminate by a girl having her genitals cut, so she could be clean and ready for motherhood. A woman who had not undergone the knife was not considered clean enough to prepare food for her husband. She would not be accepted by her community, or by her future husband.
The evening begins with people dancing and singing until early in the morning. Then a breakfast is prepared of rice with yogurt. For the girls about to undergo the ceremony, they eat two spoonfuls and then take a third to throw onto the roof of the house. This is called the Nhirri Chonli or “birth food.” Men and women across West Africa practice some form of genital mutilation (GM) and the old always perform it on the young. It is the way of being accepted into the community. I remember my own ceremony and the pride I felt for myself, my family and my village. I was part of a generations-old tradition.
For most of my life, I believed in this practice. Then, last year, I left the knife. I met a woman in Bafata, called Adamaia, who worked with Plan. She shared with me the health risks of FGM and how it can harm women and girls, even kill them. She helped me understand that to be a woman, one doesn’t have to change one’s anatomy to earn respect, be a mother and take care of one’s family.
I wish I had known earlier, all that I know now. This would have changed the lives of so many girls. I wouldn’t have put them at such risk. I feel lucky because I haven’t suffered as some women do from FGM with infertility, infections, pain and discomfort in relations with their husbands and in child birth. I see now how this is not a ‘good tradition’ but one that hurts women and can even cause death.
Now, I no longer wield the knife. Instead, I help others to understand why they should stop the practice of FGM. I can speak as someone who has experienced the knife in two ways – receiving it and applying it to young girls. I tell them, FGM doesn’t help you, your village or your family. Don’t subject your little girls to the knife.”