Sali was only 9 years old when I met her during an awareness tour in northern Senegal. Her young body was already scarred for life by excision. The sadness and anger that I had read in his eyes had reminded me of the essence of my commitment, twenty-five years earlier, against female genital mutilation in my country.
Coming from a family of circumcisers, my fight to preserve the body and the dignity of women has always seemed obvious to me despite the rejection and invective it has earned me. “A fight from another era! I am sometimes told today, as the rapid development of our continent in recent years can lead one to believe that these practices no longer exist.
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And yet, according to UNICEF, around 50 million girls are at risk of undergoing genital mutilation in Africa from here to 2030. In Senegal, nearly 2 million girls and young women underwent genital mutilation in 2019. The prevalence of this mutilation among young girls under 15 is 16%.
Increased risks of infection
If this violence still persists, it is above all because of the inequalities between men and women in our communities, as well as the superstitions and patriarchal values that crystallize fantasies around the female body. In addition to being an extreme violation of their dignity and freedom, genital mutilation impairs women’s mental and sexual health.
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This violence notably increases women’s vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, which affects women two to six times more than men in sub-Saharan Africa. The use of the same surgical instrument without sterilization as well as the increased risk of bleeding during sexual intercourse increases the risk of HIV infection tenfold among victims. Even the medicalized practice of genital mutilation is not without risk.
In many cases, the trauma and other psychological consequences resulting from this violence annihilate young girls’ confidence and their ability to impose the use of condoms on their partners. The memory of the intense pain and the shame of their body, now scarred forever, prevent them from seeking services for screening or treatment for the most benign genital infections or affections.
Contraception and access to education
For an effective response to HIV, there is an urgent need to give women and girls back control of their bodies, their lives and their futures. How to accept that today still 93% of women in Senegal do not have the freedom to make their own decisions regarding health, contraception or simply to choose when and how to have sex with their partner? As long as these inequalities persist, genital mutilation persists and women are silenced regarding their bodies and their sexuality, the elimination of HIV will unfortunately remain wishful thinking…
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Organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria help women and girls claim their sexual and reproductive health rights. This requires empowerment programs and access to education, and actions aimed at eliminating gender-related barriers that hinder access to health services. In Senegal, hundreds of young girls aged 13 to 18 have been able to benefit from support in matters of sexual health thanks to the “Essential Voices” initiative launched in July 2021 by Speak Up Africa and supported by the Fund. global.
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These teenage girls exposed to early sexuality, most often with adults, are now stronger, better able to avoid risky sexual practices and take charge of their health. These programs for women and girls must be supported, expanded and strengthened by governments, international agencies, businesses and civil society. It is only on this condition that we will be able to fight effectively against gender-based violence and hope, finally, to put an end to it. the like.