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Tante Mado, Guinea

Educating communities can lead to real improvements in public health


Tante Mado is taking a stand against the harmful practice of female genital cutting. Against the odds, her campaign to raise awareness of the risks is reaping rewards and changing behaviour.

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    Female genital cutting is an issue which affects 98 per cent of girls in Guinea. But one woman, appalled by the suffering and deaths she has witnessed in her 38 years as a midwife, has taken a stand and is speaking out about the taboo topic.

    Refusing to have her youngest daughter cut, Tante Mado is determined to change attitudes towards this deeply entrenched tradition. Usually performed without anaesthesia, FGC is a practice which involves cutting the clitoris and often the labia, where girls are forced to endure excruciating pain and often suffer excessive bleeding, HIV infection and fatal complications during childbirth.

    Undeterred by taunts and death threats following her decision to speak out, Tante set up the association Femmes pour L'Avenir des Femmes (AFAF, the association of women for the future of women). The project, funded by Plan, educates communities about the realities of this secretive practice

    NGOs have been working to end the practice for years, but it can often prove difficult to break through local barriers. Although the girls' mothers have experienced the pain and suffering of FGC themselves, they are often worried about the cultural consequences of speaking out. Historically, if a girl is not cut then she is not viewed as a 'real woman', can be shunned by the community and have difficulty finding a husband.

    But Tante's inclusive, honest approach of educating the whole community – including men – has had an exceptional effect. Five villages have now banned the practice and hundreds of girls have taken to the streets openly declaring that they are not being cut – an admission that would have been unthinkable before the project because of the social pressure to conform.

    Tante has opened people's eyes to the implications of FGC. "For me as chief of the village we have decided to fight against female excision," said Saa Koumanua Leno, chief of Koumonin village. "In the beginning we never knew that it was harmful but now we know and AFAF has explained the consequences."

    Both Tante's reputation and her message are spreading. By encouraging open discussion and working with communities to create new initiation ceremonies, she has managed to change attitudes, without threatening cultural beliefs. She has been shocked and inspired by the positive response. "The first time I heard a village was banning it I thought it was a dream," she said.

    There is still a long way to go in the fight against FGC but Tante's work and the results she has achieved, show that educating communities can lead to real change.

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