Djeynaba Kane comes from the village of Ndouloumadji Dembe, in the conservative Matam region of Senegal. Her community completed Tostan’s holistic Community Empowerment Program in 2003. As a participant in the program, Djeynaba learned about health, human rights and responsibilities, democracy, and how to live more peacefully as a community. While she enjoyed everything she learned throughout the three-year program, her life changed forever when the topic of female genital cutting (FGC), rarely spoken about in public, was raised.

At the time, Djeynaba was a traditional cutter, responsible for carrying out the practice on the girls of her community. She was also a midwife. When she learned about the harmful consequences of cutting for girls’ health, she thought about the many girls and women she had seen suffering and even dying as a result of hemorrhaging or infections, and realized that FGC was often the cause of their pain. She had never made this connection before. From then on, she decided not only to abandon the practice herself, but that others had a right to know what she had learned. She resolved to make sure they found out.

At first, her family did not accept Djeynaba’s decision to abandon the tradition, telling her “you are no longer Muslim.” Although the practice is often believed to be a requirement of Islam, this is not the case, as Djeynaba now knew. Little by little, as she explained the consequences of the practice, giving examples of girls the family knew who had suffered, they began to agree with her. Djeynaba went on to become an influential figure in the movement to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) in her own village, and in planning the first public declaration ceremony in the region.

One of her tactics she used to spread the movement to abandon the practice was to go directly to the other FGC practitioners she knew. She travelled to the home of each cutter in the region and shared the information that she had learned from the Tostan program. One by one, as they listened to Djeynaba speak about human rights and the effects of FGC on women’s health, they decided to give up their role in this practice, one which in most cases had been passed down for generations of women in their families. Under Djeynaba’s lead, they formed L’Association des Ex-Exciseuses PELITAL de Matam, a region-wide association uniting former cutters. Together, they set about spreading the message of abandonment to other villages.

Initially, the association’s work focused only on the dangers of FGC but over the years, Djeynaba explains, the group of former cutters turned social mobilization agents has expanded the range of information that they diffuse through communities. “Now we talk about development and not just FGC”, she says. Today they also share messages about wider health and human rights issues with others. They are currently collaborating with the local government in Matam, and are seeking other external partners to help cover the costs of awareness-raising visits to villages throughout the region.

When asked what she is most proud of, out of all the social mobilization and awareness-raising work that she has carried out since, Djeynaba remembers visiting one traditional cutter who was particularly adamant that she would continue the practice. Persevering, Djeynaba went back to visit her several times and, over the course of many discussions, eventually managed to convince her not only to give up the practice but to join the Former Cutters Association, of which she is now an active member. “And I know that it is true, she has not cheated, she has truly abandoned!” says Djeynaba, smiling.

Djeynaba believes that Senegal is moving towards a point when the majority of people know the dangers of FGC. She explains that there are some who learn about the harmful consequences of the practice through participation in the Tostan program, and there are others who learn this information through the social mobilization activities and agents that spread what others have learned. Most important, she says, are those who have found out about the effects of the practice first-hand, when their daughters or other relatives have suffered, and are bravely willing to share their stories. When people hear these stories and are made aware of their human rights, they will be ready to abandon.

Last week, Djeynaba was a key attendee at a seminar about FGC in Senegal where the Director of Family announced that the government’s target of total abandonment in Senegal by 2015 is achievable. 

Interview by Shona Macleod, Communications Assistant, Tostan.