Witchcraft beliefs blamed for halting drive to end FGM in Guinea

By Emma Batha, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Emma Batha

LONDON, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Belief in witchcraft is hampering efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Guinea where almost all girls are cut, campaigners said on Tuesday.

Aminata Bah, who underwent FGM at the age of five, said many people in the West African country believed traditional circumcisers had supernatural powers and girls feared being cursed if they spoke about what had happened to them.

With 97% of women cut, Guinea is estimated to have the second highest prevalence of FGM globally after Somalia.

Although most people are Muslim, belief in witchcraft is widespread, Bah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at an event hosted by the National FGM Centre.

In some communities, she said the flesh removed from girls during the ritual was used for spells or in traditional medicines to cure illnesses and infertility.

An anti-FGM charity in Nigeria, where a quarter of women have been cut, recently tweeted that some circumcisers sell clitorises to "fetish priests" who turn them into aphrodisiacs.

Bah said FGM was surrounded by myths and girls were often told something bad, like infertility, would happen to them if they spoke about it.

If a girl died during FGM it was frequently linked to witchcraft, she added.

"It's about putting fear into girls' minds so they accept whatever happens to them," Bah said.

"It's hampering efforts (to end FGM). It's definitely stopping people talking about it because they don't want to get cursed."

She said witchcraft beliefs existed in Muslim and Christian communities in other West African countries affected by FGM, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Mali and Gambia.

Worldwide an estimated 200 million girls have been cut, according to U.N. data, but beliefs around the practice vary. The ritual - often done in the name of culture or religion and believed to make girls pure - usually entails the partial or total removal of external genitalia. The vaginal opening may also be sewn up.

Mama Sylla, who runs a charity in Britain called La Fraternite Guineenne to campaign against FGM, told how she nearly died after being cut at the age of nine.

"It was extremely painful. I bled for three days. I was lucky to survive. They said a witch had put a curse on me," she said, adding that FGM was a factor in Guinea's high maternal mortality rate.

"Many women die giving birth. People will say it's because the baby was too big, but it's because the mother cannot push because she's been cut."

The question of whether FGM can have links to witchcraft arose during a landmark trial last year when a mother-of-two became the first person in Britain to be convicted of FGM.

The Ugandan-born woman tried to halt police investigations with spells involving curses inserted in cows' tongues and bitter fruit but an expert on FGM said the practice was not connected to witchcraft. (Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)