Female genital mutilation is barbaric, any way you slice it.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter is a documentary created by local filmmaking team Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater. The film chronicles the plight of West Philadelphia resident Mrs. Goundo, an expatriate of Mali and one of Philly’s 50,000 African immigrants. In the film, Goundo seeks asylum on the grounds that if she is deported her 2-year-old daughter Djenebou will be subject to a crude procedure called female genital mutilation (FGM).
In FGM, parts of babies or young girls’ genitals are sliced off. There is zero medical benefit. Severity ranges from cutting the tip of the clitoris to carving off everything external and sewing the vaginal opening almost completely closed. It’s done with bottles, knives or razors and without anesthesia. In Mali, about 85 percent of all girls undergo FGM. The motivation is to cut girls’ sexual desire, preserve virginity and make her less likely to cheat on a husband later on.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter brings home the fact that FGM doesn’t just affect other people in faraway lands. Djenebou, born here, is an American citizen. She lives in Philly. She’ll go to school with our kids. Only a toddler when the film was shot, she’s a pudgy tumble of cuteness in a hot-pink butterfly shirt. The thought of anyone taking a knife to this grinning baby is almost too much to bear.
The film jumps between Philly and Mali. In Mali, women wrapped in brightly patterned dresses and scarves walk with dozens of children. White string is loosely knotted around kids’ necks and waists to ward off evil spirits. But the smiling faces of their elders are the real danger. In a few minutes the kids, all girls, will be held down while a woman slices into their little bodies. Filmmakers are shooed away right before the actual procedure. The camera’s eye pans across the pained fear on the girls’ faces as they wait.
Back in a Philadelphia courthouse, Mrs. Goundo testifies that she would not be able to protect little Djenebou from this fate if they are deported to Mali. She explains that even if a girl’s mother is against FGM, extended family will hijack the girl, do it anyway and blame God’s will.
For years, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Population Fund and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have all issued statements denouncing FGM in all its forms. In the United States, as with most of the Western world, any form of FGM is illegal and constitutes child abuse.
Now that might change.
On April 26, the AAP released a controversial statement advocating the legalization of a light form of FGM they call a “ritual nick.”
The justification the AAP is offering is that a sanitized version in a clinical setting will protect girls who would otherwise be sent back to their respective homelands to endure a far more brutal version. The statement reads: “These physicians emphasize the significance of a ceremonial ritual in the initiation of the girl or adolescent as a community member and advocate only pricking or incising the clitoral skin as sufficient to satisfy cultural requirements. This is no more of an alteration than ear piercing.”
In most human-rights circles, endorsing a “minor” version of FGM is akin to recommending U.S. pediatricians bind the feet of Chinese girls—just a little bit—at a parents’ request.
The AAP’s harm-reduction model rests on what they call “legitimate concern” that immigrant families in the U.S. want FGM for their daughters.
A local expert says that’s not the case. He says that in the West African community he knows in West Philly, parents don’t want FGM for their daughters—they fear it.
“[Offering a ‘ritual nick’] is not going to help anybody,” says Moussa Traoré. “Matter of fact, all woman who have a child here in the U.S. have this kind of concern.”
Traoré, associate producer on Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, appears throughout the film as he helps Mrs. Goundo—the wife of his friend—fight for asylum by translating documents and proceedings for her. Traoré arrived in Philadelphia from Mali in 1990, making him one of the first Malian immigrants in the U.S. and a respected elder statesman of Philly’s Malian ex-pat community.
Critics of AAP’s recommendation charge that legalizing a “ritual nick” endorses a violent, oppressive practice and thwarts substantial progress made to raise awareness and ban the practice throughout the world. The AAP concedes that the research of the effects of legalization are unclear. For example, similar legalization in Egypt, where the practice was most common in the entire world, has resulted in extending the tradition.
It’s estimated that 100 to 140 million girls are currently living with the consequences of FGM. Mrs. Goundo is one of them. But with Traoré’s help, Djenebou will not join the bloody ranks. Mrs. Goundo won her case—on grounds that FGM constituted persecution—and earned a green card.
Traoré says that since he helped Goundo win her case, 25 to 30 more local parents have asked him to help them for the same reason. “We always have women seeking asylum based on this situation,” he says.
For women like Mrs. Goundo, FGM isn’t what they miss about home, it’s the looming threat that keeps them from everything else.
“I’ve been so far away from Africa for so long. I miss my homeland,” Mrs. Goundo says in the film.
By the end of the film, Mrs. Goundo’s husband fell ill and the family income plummeted. She made the painful decision to send her sons back to Mali to live with relatives. She also gave birth to another daughter. Like her body, her family is ripped apart. Though she’d like to return to Mali, she needs to stay in the United States with her daughters to prevent them from undergoing FGM.
Meanwhile, if the AAP’s policy recommendation is followed, a “minor” version of that torture will be offered down the street, at the local pediatrician’s office—a modern homage to medieval brutality.