When Teliwel Diallo was eight years old, her mother told her that it was time for her to become a woman. Though Teliwel didn’t understand exactly what that meant, she was excited to join her grandmother and other girls from the village on their mysterious excursion.
That day, Teliwel became one of the 96% of Guinean women who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).
“Because I didn’t know anything about excision, I was feeling happy inside,” says Teliwel. But her enjoyment soon turned to terror.
“Everyone was waiting for their turn. I could hear the screams of the ones who went in before me. I was just there, frozen. I was confused – run away or stay? I couldn’t run away because it would mean dishonour for my family. When my turn came, it was atrocious.”
FGM can be fatal when bleeding is severe. For girls and women subjected to the practice, the consequences are lifelong and include chronic pain, infection, psychological issues, sexual dysfunction and complications in childbirth.
UNHCR considers FGM a form of persecution involving a number of human rights violations – right to life, bodily integrity, freedom of choice and right to health.
On the International Day for Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on 6 February, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised that FGM is “a gross violation of the human rights of women and girls”.
“Without concerted, accelerated action, a further 68 million girls could be subjected to this harmful practice by 2030,” warns the UN Secretary General.
Together with the European Union, the UN recently launched the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year undertaking that aims to create strong partnerships and align efforts to end all forms of violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation by 2030,” he warned in his message marking the day.
More than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Every year an estimated 3 million girls are at risk, however as progress in eradicating FGM is not keeping pace with population growth, this number is expected to grow much higher.
A little-known fact about FGM is that it is frequently performed more than once, which means women and girls remain at risk even after they have undergone the procedure. This is why being at risk of FGM, or having already experienced it, is grounds for refugee status.
“The second excision is always done secretly,” says Teliwel. “It’s very common but little talked about. When I was 15, my grandmother decided to finish the work she had started because she thought the first excision was badly done. I almost died because they cut into a vein. I had massive bleeding, lost consciousness and woke up in hospital.”
As well as assisting with asylum claims for girls and women who have escaped from FGM, UNHCR runs programs in refugee camps and settlements to encourage communities to abandon the practice. These include educational activities, public debates and using various media to spread awareness of the dangers involved. However, in countries like Guinea with deeply entrenched beliefs about FGM, it can be an uphill battle.