Manyi Tabot was just four years old when the female elders in her Manyu community in Cameroon’s South West region performed a centuries-old ritual on her tiny body: her clitoris was cut off and buried.
Nearly seven decades after, the 69-year-old now wonders what that small silver of skin would have meant for her life.
“Maybe childbirth might have been different,” she says. “Maybe I could enjoy sex more…I hear it is where women get the most pleasure during sex.”
Manyi Tabot has a disarming smile. The 70-year-old can’t forget she was mutilated only when she turned four. She recalls it was a thing of pride for many women, but it was also painful.
“After two weeks of the exercise, I continued bleeding until they had to take me to hospital because the urinary tract was sealed. I could no longer urinate, so they struggled, and a small hole came out that can help me to urinate…the effects continue because I developed a venereal disease. Secondly, when I want to deliver, it’s always forced delivery which causes a lot of pain. Then, it pains during menstruation.”
Victims of female genital mutilation in Cameroon used to live in the shadows, fearful of what stigma could follow them should the public get to know that they have been cut.
But they are now coming out and speaking out, thanks to intense sensitization efforts by the government and NGOs. Those who do the cutting are holding on to the practice, saying that if they must stop, then they will need alternative ways of getting money for the cutting is also a way of sustaining a living for those who do it. Traditionalists are also holding onto what they consider a “noble culture.”
The global community has taken strong measures to fight the practice, reason February 6 was set aside to observe the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, thus increasing awareness.
Tabot remembers the day she was cut as marked by the Monenkin Dance -a fancy display used to celebrate a very peculiar event: the genital cutting of girls.
“If you have the opportunity to watch the Monenkem Dance, you will even ask that circumcision should continue,” says chief Osang Ntui.
For the traditional ruler, this is not just a fancy idea. It is rooted in the fundamental belief that was necessary for the building of a morally sound society.
“Culturally, the people imbibed FGM as a way in which a girl child can be guided against promiscuity, that is, not going out to meet young men until that girl is married. It is to reduce the sexual urge in that girl and to give the family a good name, make sure that they have brought up a girl who is appreciated; who is of the standard; a girl who can represent them anywhere. It also prepares the girl for marriage.”
Medical practitioners say the health consequences of genital cutting could be dire, and in some cases, they lead to death – according to Dr. Nick Ngwanyam, a surgeon who has had to deal with some of the health hazards.
“This is a problem that affects the reproductive lives of these girls and is considered a human rights abuse. Women who go through these kinds of problems have a lot of medical issues to deal with…The short-term problems would be like women would go through excessive and unnecessary pain. There will always be infections because the conditions under which the surgery was done were not proper. They could die from shock, they would have problems passing urine and menses, and as they become older, they have problems with sex, they have a problem with childbearing.”
Despite negative consequences, traditionalists are holding on to the practice because genital cutting is also a source of livelihood. But in doing so, the perpetrators are violating the law. Elvis Ngolle is a lawyer in Cameroon.
“Article 277 of the Cameroon Penal Code states that whosoever permanently deprives another of the use of a whole or any organ or sense shall be punished with imprisonment from ten to twenty years. If in the course of mutilating, the victim bleeds to death, you shall be charged with assault occasioning death as per Article 278 and be punished with imprisonment from six to twenty years. Those who just saw and did not report to constituted authorities shall equally be punished as accomplices to FGM.”
The Cameroon government has been sensitizing its citizens to end Female Genital Mutilation, but it may take some time to change the practice which is deeply rooted in the country’s culture.