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Abibata Sanon, above, is one of the first women in West Africa to undergo the genital reconstruction procedure at a private clinic.
Olivier Asselin
Abibata Sanon, above, is one of the first women in West Africa to undergo the genital reconstruction procedure at a private clinic.

Clinic to fight taboo of female mutilation

A centre in Burkina Faso will offer free reconstructive treatment to mutilation victims, around 70% of the country's women.

BOBO-DIALOUSSO, BURKINA FASO // Africa's first clinic designated for the reconstruction of female genitalia will open in Bobo-Dialousso this year. The clinic will offer free reconstructive surgery to women from across West Africa.

About 70 per cent of Burkina Faso's seven million women are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM), a deep-rooted practice in West Africa. The ritual, common in a stretch between Senegal and Benin, can cause complications such as serious infections, excessive bleeding and stillbirths. Mariam Banemanie, the director of Voices of Women, a Burkinabé non-governmental organisation that is paying for the clinic with Clitoraid, an NGO based in Las Vegas, said about 90 per cent of Burkinabé women in their 20s feel no sexual sensation. "Currently reconstruction is only available in the capital for a fee upwards of 160,000 CFA [Dh1,200]. That option isn't available to every woman, which is why we're excited about the construction of the clinic in Bobo-Dialousso," Ms Banemanie said. "Burkina Faso is fast becoming the crossroads for genital reconstruction surgery in Africa."

Thousands of African women between the ages of 18 and 70 have expressed interest in undergoing the surgery in Burkina Faso, according to Marissé Caissy of Clitoraid. Some plan to travel to Bobo-Dialousso from such neighbouring countries as Ivory Coast and Mali for the operation. Ms Caissy said sexual sensation is restored in about 90 per cent of cases. Recovery takes at least six weeks. When the clinic opens in October, Abi Ouardé, 24, will be one of the first women through its doors.

Ms Ouardé carries herself like a woman in a hurry. She drives a shiny new Yamaha moped, slings a leather bag over her shoulder, wears a sleek black dress and bejewelled heels that match the royal blue of the mudguards. As she skids to a halt and shimmies off the moped, heads turn. She looks every inch the liberated West African woman. But something is missing from Ms Ouardé's life and she is eager to restore it. At the age of four she became a victim of genital mutilation. "Because sexuality is taboo in Burkina Faso, circumcised women are not supposed to talk about the fact that they don't feel any sensation. It's seen as something we just have to put up with," she said.

Three years ago, Abibata Sanon, 36, became one of the first women in West Africa to undergo the procedure at a private clinic in Ouagadougou. She has since become a symbol of the fight against FGM. "Having the surgery seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a stand against FGM," she said. Ms Sanon's longtime boyfriend was eager for her to have the surgery and even helped pay for it. But women say the fact that many men still favour the practice is the biggest hurdle in the battle for gender equality in West Africa.

"Some men believe that a woman will never stray if her ability to feel pleasure is removed. It's time for our voices to be heard. People are beginning to understand the concept of women's liberation. Women deserve to feel good about themselves," Ms Banemanie said. Although FGM is banned in several West African countries, including Ghana and Burkina Faso, it remains widespread. The practice was deemed illegal in Burkina Faso in 1996, but rights groups say perpetrators have switched tactics to avoid detection, targeting toddlers and babies whose cries do not raise suspicion.

Ms Banemanie said once the restoration clinic opens, its presence might even serve as a deterrent. "If cut women are able to restore themselves, perhaps people will realise that it's no longer worthwhile to continue with the cutting," she said. Since having the surgery, the effect on Ms Sanon's life has been remarkable. A few months after undergoing the procedure, she told her mother, who backed her father when he took her to be cut as a baby, about the operation. "The reaction of my 70-year-old mother shocked me. She was very supportive and even now she keeps asking me when the clinic will open. I wonder if she wants to have the surgery herself."

And then there is the effect on her personal life. "Until I had the operation, it was my boyfriend that called the shots. Now our relationship is more equal." kthomas@thenational.ae

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