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Surviving Female Genital Mutilation: In Conversation with Marie-Claire Kakpotia Koulibaly

Marie-Claire Kakpotia Koulibaly is a feminist and activist fighting to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and forced marriages. Marie-Claire is the founder and director of the Les Orchidées Rouges, an NGO that is committed to the elimination of FGM and organizes legal and medical support for its victims.



CJLPA: Welcome, Marie-Claire Kakpotia Koulibaly. I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to come and interview with The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art to discuss your story as a women’s rights activist fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. We would like to begin by learning more about your personal story. To the extent you feel comfortable, can you tell us how you fell victim to FGM and how old you were at the time?

 

Marie-Claire Kakpotia Koulibaly: I got FGM when I was nine years old, and at that time, I didn’t know that it was FGM. It was painful. It was painful and very difficult for me, but I didn’t know that it was FGM. And I didn’t know that the part of me that took out was my clitoris. So, I realised years later, several years later.

 

CJLPA: And how was it that you became aware of what happened to you?

 

MK: I became aware when I was 15, almost 16 years old. I left my home city to go to the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, where people don’t practice FGM. So, people were telling me that FGM is a very bad thing. But I realised it really when I met a man from Italy, and one day, we decided to have sex, and as soon as he saw me naked, he stopped me and asked, ‘where is your clitoris?’. And I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’. He told me I had been mutilated. ‘You cannot be a normal woman; you cannot have a normal life’. And after, he left me, and didn’t contact me again, because he could not finish due to my FGM, so it was very difficult for me because I couldn’t finish either. I had that feeling of being broken and undesirable when I was 19 years old.

 

CJLPA: Thank you for sharing. When he told you that you were mutilated, and that you didn’t have what a woman would need, did you reflect then, back on what had happened when at such a young age you were cut? What was it like when you were initially first being cut? Did it seem normal at the time? Or were you very much afraid of what was happening and scared of the surroundings? Did you know at the time, what the implications were? Were you afraid or did it seem more of a normal practice that everyone around you was doing?

 

MK: It was when I was nine years old. It was very painful and very difficult for me. In my mind, I was thinking that it was a normal practice, that it was a part of my education, because every girl and woman around me was mutilated. So, for me, it was normal. They didn’t explain to me why they were doing it, and I didn’t ask questions because it was very taboo. I was only a child and I saw many girls mutilatedso for me, it was okay, it was normal. It was painful, it was difficult, girls were cryingI was crying also, because they had told me that we had been invited to a party and I was very happy to go. But when I got inside, it wasn’t a party. It is difficult when you are nine years old and four women slam you to the ground and one takes out a knife and cuts into your vagina without anaesthesia. It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life.

 

CJLPA: I can’t even begin to imagine the fear and the thoughts that come, as a young child at nine years old, just being pinned down. From today’s perspective, can you speak more towards this practice? Why it is that FGM is performed on young woman? Is there a reason behind it? What does it symbolise?

 

MK: FGM designates all the practices which cut the external genital organs of women. They have different reasons to justify FGM all over the world. In some parts of the world, they say that girls must undergo FGM to become a real woman. Sometimes they say it is cleaner to get FGM. And in some communities, if a woman is not mutilated, she’s considered a dirty woman, and nobody wants to speak with her, nobody to eat the food she cooks. Parents even say to their children, ‘no, no, don’t play with that girl or that boy, because their mother is not mutilated’. So, there are various social pressures to mutilate girls and women and in many parts of the world, they mutilate the girls and women because they want them to remain virgins until marriage. And when they get married, they want them to be faithful to their husband, to not cheat. So, they want to control a woman’s body, they want to control a woman’s sexuality, and they want to control a woman’s life. It is gender-based violence which destroys girls and women’s lives, because it has long lasting consequences, very bad consequences into adulthood.

 

CJLPA: From your experiences, you talk about how horrible it was for you. Why is it the other womenwho have also probably felt the same fear and horrorthink this must continue? You also mentioned your grandma’s involvementI’m assuming she was cut as well. So, after all that she experienced, how could she let it happen to you as well?

 

MK: It is because of the social pressure, because in these communities, if a woman is not mutilated, she cannot find a husband. It is impossible, because men only want to marry mutilated women. And in these communities, women are nothing if they don’t have a husband. It is very important in these communities to have to get married before 30 years old. So, the mothers have the pressure to give their girls a chance to get a husband. And to get a husband for them, one of the conditions is to be mutilated. If a woman refuses to mutilate her girls, her husband will divorce her. Even if the husband doesn’t divorce her, the family of the husband will say she is not a good woman, if she doesn’t want to mutilate her girls. So it is very difficult for them.

 

That is why in my work, I want female empowerment, mental empowerment, physical empowerment, and financial empowerment. I want female liberation, because when women are liberated, they can say ‘no, I don’t want to mutilate my daughter because it is a horrible practice, because now I’m suffering because of FGM so I don’t want my girl to suffer like me’. Even though they know that it is not a good practice, they continue because they don’t have money or the opportunity to be emancipated by society. So it is important to raise awareness to prevent this practice but also to help women to become empowered, because the empowerment of women will stop FGM.

 

CJLPA: What would happen to young girls who tried to resist being cut?

 

MK: When you are young it is very difficult to resist because they never warn you. They will never tell you ‘I will mutilate you!’. They are very kind, they say ‘oh, come to a party, oh come with me, we will visit your grandmother’, or a grandmother can say ‘I want to see my grandchildren’, and when you go to them, they mutilate girls. Sometimes my institute helps families even in Europe. They have come back from vacation and their baby girl has been mutilated whilst they left them with their family. So it is very difficult to resist. The better way to resist is not to go there, not to go into the community, because if you go there, if the girls and the women go over there, and they don’t pay attention, they may cut the baby. Sometimes even the neighbours cut girls of another family. So, it is very difficult to resist. And when you are a young girl, there are sometimes three or four women. It is very difficult to resist because physically they are more powerful than you. So the best way to resist is not to go there, because it is very difficult to escape. When a woman here in Bordeaux tells me she wants to go to a country where they mutilate women, I say ‘if you go there, you have to sleep with your baby girls, you have to have them with you at all times. Because if you leave them alone, or if you leave them with the family, you will get a very bad surprise’.

 

CJLPA: From your experience, and from speaking to FGM survivors, how can FGM affect young girls later on in life, in terms of the trauma that they’ve endured?

 

MK: FGM can impact women psychologically, physically, and also socially. Psychologically, because many women, like me, develop a lack of self-confidence. They hate their body. Often, survivors tell me ‘I don’t like my body, my body is horrible. I don’t want to look at my vagina’. So, it is very difficult to be happy when you don’t like your body, when you don’t have self-confidence or self-esteem. It is very difficult to build your future. Survivors tell me they want to die, they want to die because life is so difficult for them, because they’re undesirable, because they cannot have a normal sexual life. Because they cannot be happy sexually. And sometimes also, they don’t make good decisions for their life, because when they develop a lack of self-confidence, sometimes they choose a man who is not good for them. Because we’re so sad. They choose the man who is right in front of them, and they don’t wait for the right one. So it is difficult to be happy in their personal life.

 

Sexually, it is very, very painful for some of them. They can also have gynaecology problems because of FGM. When they give birth to a baby, they or the baby could die because of FGM. And socially, they could stay in poverty because of FGM. Sometimes due to FGM, women can become sick on a long-term basis, often due to sexual infections, meaning they cannot continue going to school. And so, they stay in poverty. And during the FGM procedure, they can die because of the blood lossFGM generally is not done in a hospital, it is done somewhere outside, in a forest or somewhere in a smaller room with no medical equipmentso they can die, and often they do die.

 

CJLPA: Have you spoken to cutters before? What was their response? Do they have any sense of empathy for what they’ve done? Do they understand the implications FGM has for women mentally and physically?

 

MK: I met a cutter some years ago in Cote d’Ivoire. And I asked her why she cut girls, and she told me it was her grandmother’s heritage, her grandmother was a cutter. And before dying, her grandmother gave authority to that cutter I met in Cote D’Ivoire. I asked her ‘Do you realise that you destroy lives?. She said ‘no, it is our tradition. Our ancestors practised FGM. So, we continue practising FGM to honour our ancestors’. I told her she could honour ancestors without taking life. And I said, ‘do you realise that girls suffer, many girls suffer, because of your practice?’. She said it is a rich tradition. She kept speaking about tradition. But I told her that tradition must make lives better, not destroy lives. Tradition must create an equal society. Tradition must create liberty, freedom, tradition must create wellness, tradition must not create sadness, suffering, it must not create destruction. I told her that sometimes girls die because of her practice. Tradition cannot justify that. So you must stop practising FGM.

 

She said, ‘I know that it is difficult, but if we don’t practice FGM then women will become prostitutes’. I said, ‘No, that is not true. If you want women and girls to have correct behaviour for your community, you can educate them. You don’t need to cut them. You can just educate them, teach them to respect themselves. Teach them to respect their body. You can respect your body whilst doing what you want with your body. My body is my choice. You cannot choose for me what I do with my body. It is not possible’. I said to them, ‘By cutting girls, you tell them that their body is not their property. It is a violation of our fundamental rights. So, stop now’. It must stop and I told her that she could go to jail if I hear that she cut again, she will go to jail because it is forbidden.

 

It is a crime to mutilate in many countries. Unfortunately, we still have six countries in the world where it is totally legal to mutilate girls. In 2023, we cannot have some countries where it is normal to cut. It is not a crime in six countries in the world. We as an international community must do something about that. I want the United Nations to make a decision about the six countries where it is legal to mutilate, and to vote on laws to criminalise it. Even criminalization is not enough to stop it, but it is important to vote for a law to say it is a crime.

 

CJLPA: You raised some very crucial points that I want to talk about later in the interview. But just going back to your conversation with a cutterin my head, when you first started speaking about a cutter, I assumed that it was a man, but it’s another woman. And she thinks that it’s normal practice to tell a woman what to do with their body, take that right away from them. That is the mentality in her head, that this is normal practice. I think it’s just astonishing. And it just shows you that the root of the cause is that from such a young age, women are already told and brought up that they are less than a man, that their body is not theirs, and it’s for other people to decide what to do with it.

 

It must be so challenging to see the person responsible for what was done to you at such a young age, and then also how she just kept going back and forth with you, saying ‘no, this is the way it is, and this has always been the way and tradition’. How can we address that, how do we get them to understand and how do we help minimise this practice? What can be done?

 

MK: To stop FGM, it is important to work with cutters like partners, because they need to be educated. They are very ignorant, so it’s important to work with them. And it is also important to give them another way to make money. Because when I discussed it with her, she realised that it is a bad thing. She said ‘I know that it is not really a good practice, but it is our tradition’. And she asked me, ‘I want to stop. I want to stop. You are not the first person to tell me that it is not good’. But, she said to me, ‘I don’t have another way to make money. So if I decided to stop, how can you help me to live, to make money?’. That is the real question. How can we convert cutters? How can we inform them? We know how to inform them, we know how to educate them, but it is important to convert them, to allow them to have another job. It is important to understand that it is a job for them. It is a job and they earn a lot of money, because communities respect them. They are the people who allow women to become a real woman, to become pure. So it is important, I think, to empower cutters. And we are working on a programme in South Africa, in Côte d’Ivoire, to raise awareness, to work with cutters and to give them the opportunity to find another job. Because even if we educate them, if we don’t give them the opportunity to have another job to earn money, by another way, they will continue.

 

CJLPA: Definitely. There’s a misconception that FGM is just an African problem, when the reality is that women fall victim to this or all over the world, including in Europe. Why do you think people don’t know this occurs in every country that they live in?

 

MK: I think that people think that it is just in African countries, an African problem, because in Western countries, police, politicians, and even feminist activists don’t speak loudly about FGM. It is very taboo, even in politics and in activism. So, it is important to spread awareness to highlight the topic of FGM. Many people consider that FGM is a barbaric practice coming from Africa, because Africa is a barbaric continent. So, they cannot imagine that Western countries are also impacted by FGM. Sometimes in my conferences, I tell people that whilst today it is diaspora communities in Western countries that practice FGM, until 1960 FGM was practised by white people in hospitals in Europe and in the USA. When I tell people this, they say ‘no, no, no, this is impossible’, because they say it is a barbaric practice. But yes, in Europe and countries like France, like the United States, FGM was practiced on women as a supposed ‘cure’ for hysteria, mental illness, or masturbation.[1] They cut the clitoris in hospital, so it was legal. 

 

Now it has changed, because it is just other communities which practice FGM. But it is important to highlight that it is a global issue, because many European girls and women are mutilated, sometimes here in Europe, often whilst on vacation. This summer, unfortunately, some girls and women will come back from vacation mutilated, which is the reality. So, it is important for politicians, activists, and organisations which fight for human rights to speak about FGM. Everybody must speak about FGM. In Europe, and everywhere in Western countries when they speak about gender-based violence, they never mentioned FGM or forced marriage. Never, never, never. So, in my advocacy, when I work with the French government and United Nations, I tell them to mention female genital mutilation and forced marriage when they talk about women’s rights, because if equality exists, FGM and forced marriage cannot exist. It is one of the manifestations, one of the extreme manifestations of inequality between men and women. So, you cannot talk about gender-based violence without mentioning FGM and forced marriage.

 

CJLPA: Returning back to Europe, as you mentioned, it is still an ongoing issue. But unlike those six countries, in Europe, it is illegal. Why is FGM still occurring in Europe? Are politicians not getting involved enough? Or are there simply no reports happening, as victims do not come forward?

 

MK: I’m seeing it continue to happen in Europe. That is why in my work, I want to speak loudly to highlight the topic. It is very taboo and it happens behind closed doors. Families and survivors involved have social pressure, family pressure, so it is impossible for them to denounce their family. So, this lack of denunciation in the communities, and the denunciation of the survivors, is one of the main reasons why FGM continues to occur in Europe and in Western countries, because if survivors or community members begin to speak louder about this, it will stop, but they don’t do that. It is very difficult to identify which families or which communities continue to practice FGM in Europe.

 

CJLPA: And following up on your work, you’ve started your own NGO, Les Orchidées Rouges, to help women and young girls who are victims of FGM and forced marriage. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what inspired you to begin this NGO and what the name symbolises.

 

MK: I decided to create an NGO after my reconstruction. When I reconstructed myself, I realised that I have suffered hugely because of FGM and I also realised that millions of girls and women are suffering because of this practice. So, in my mind, I thought I must act, I have to contribute to the eradication of FGM because I don’t want girls or women go through what I went through. So it was important for me to use my experience, it was also important for me to create innovative solutions to support and give free treatment to survivors, to allow them to become empowered, to allow them to become resilient, and to take power over their body, their life. Those that practice FGM cannot have the last word over other people’s lives.

 

CJLPA: That’s truly inspiring, the work that you’ve established and how you’re giving the voice back of young girls and women that have been silenced. What does the name symbolise?

 

MK: Les Orchidées Rouges. The red orchid. I was talking about my story to a friend. And when I told her my story, at the end, I said, it is like a flower you cut. And the flower grows, the flower is born again, better. So, when I decided to create an NGO, she said to me, ‘Oh, I liked your flower story, can you name your NGO after the name of a flower in African language?’. And I told her, ‘I don’t know the name of a flower in African language, but I want to choose a flower which is symbolic for me’. So I found information on the internet about the red orchid, and I discovered that the meaning of the red orchid is the very strong desire to have sexual pleasure, to have sex. And they cut girls and women to stop their sexual life, to control their sexual life. So, for me, I decided to call my NGO Les Orchidées Rouges to say that women also have the right to have sexual pleasure, the right to do what we want with our body, the right to be free. And when I looked on the internet, I saw that the flower of an orchid is like the vagina of a woman. We have something like a clitoris, which is cut during FGM. And the meaning of the word ‘les Orchidées’ originates from the Greek language [orchis] and the meaning is a testicle. So then it was clear to me that I had to call the NGO Les Orchidées Rouges.

 

CJLPA: I wanted to shift the focus a little bit because I know that your NGO also works around forced marriage. Millions of girls around the world were forced into marriage before the age of 18. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about this issue and what your NGO does to address this?

 

MK: So, we speak about forced marriage when we speak with communities, but also when we train professionals in hospitals, in schools. Even European girls are victims of forced marriage, when some go on holidays this summer, some will not come back. Even last week, I was talking with a professional in a bank. And she was very sad, because her cousin went to Madagascar, but she never came back, because they forced her into a marriage with an old man in that country and she stayed there. So we educate those in communities, professionals, even those in schools about forced marriage and we tell them that we cannot force people to marry. We cannot do that. It is the fundamental right of girls and women to decide if they want to be married, if they want a person, because the origin of marriage must be love. Love must be the origin. If you force somebody, there’s no love. There’s no love, it is violence. And we tell them that it is a violence, and you sacrifice girls.

 

Sometimes, they say that it is because of poverty. It is slavery, because women sell their girls, they sell the women of their family to have money to live. I understand that it is difficult to be in poverty, but you cannot sell a person. She is not an object, she is not a thing, she is a person, a person who has rights, fundamental rights. You cannot sell a person. She will suffer and because she will be victim of sexual violence. If you don’t choose your husband, you don’t want to have sex with him, so many forced marriage survivors are victims of rape. And they’re also a victim of family violence because the men beat the girls or the women when they don’t want to have sex. And she’s like his slave.

 

CJLPA: Do you think the underlying issue is poverty in the sense that families are so desperate that they are willing to sell their child, as you said, into slavery? Or do you think it’s more of a mentality issue, of ‘Well, it’s just a woman’—objectifying a woman as a person? Or do you think it’s a bit of both?

 

MK: I think that it is a mentality issue. Why don’t they sell the boys or the men of the family, why don’t they sell boys and men? It is a question of women’s place in society; women are not respected in society. Across all kinds of societies in the world, women’s equality exists nowhere. Nowhere. People think that women are the property of society, anybody can decide for women what they have to do with their life, their body, their sexuality, everything. So, it really is a mentality issue, because they can’t see that if you are poor, you can find another solution, you don’t have to sell a person. And if you sell a person, why is it always the women who are sold? That is why it is important to change the mentalities and to create a place, a respected place for women and girls in all the societies in the world, because we need to find solutions together, men and women together, to improve our societies. By taking another kind of solution with respect for everybody, men and women.

 

CJLPA: That was very powerfully said, and I completely agree with you. I wanted to also ask you, from your work and your experience, have you seen progress over the years, or do you find that these issues are just as problematic as before and if not even gotten worse?

 

MK: I think that we will notice some progress, but it is not fast. It is slow, very slow. It is important to accelerate the progression, because millions of women and girls continue to suffer. Girls are dying because of FGM, forced marriage, and other types of gender-based violence. And unfortunately, because of the COVID crisis, schools were closed, and when schools are closed, they can cut girls and nobody will be aware. So during the COVID crisis and lockdown, many girls and women were being mutilated behind closed doors, everywhere in the world, many of them mutilated by force. And because of the COVID crisis and lockdown, NGOs like mine were not able to go into communities to continue raising awareness, so unfortunately, there was a large impact.

 

There is small, slow progress, but we need it to progress faster. We need the international communities to consider FGM and forced marriage, we need politicians to enforce the laws, to follow the laws which forbid FGM. We want them to criminalise FGM in the countries where it is legal. And we also need funding, we need financial means for NGOs, or for organisations to continue raising awareness, to also continue developing, innovating solutions to accelerate the eradication of FGM.

 

CJLPA: Absolutely, because there is a lot of work to do. And as we speak, it’s a constant continuing crisis that’s happening all around the world. And it’s something that more people need to know about. It’s one of the top priorities that should be on the agenda is for politicians and lawyers and ambassadors.

 

I wanted to ask you what the key message is that we need to send out in respect to FGM and forced marriage for all the readers, in order to spread awareness and push for that motion of urgency amongst readers, politicians, lawyers?

 

MK: I want to speak about the importance of education. When I went to schools and communities people often told me, ‘Oh my god, for me It was normal to cut girls. And now you opened my mind, you opened my eyes, I discovered it was not good. And my girls will now not be mutilated’. Or sometimes I met some boys, and they tell me that I opened their eyes to FGM and that when they have a baby girl, she will not be mutilated. For me, it is a victory to listen to these people. And sometimes I met girls in schools, and they said ‘Oh, I have been mutilated, for me, it was okay. But now, you have opened my eyes, I know that it is not good. And when I have a baby, she will not be mutilated’. So, that is why it is important to continue raising awareness, to continue going to meet people in communities, girls and boys in schools, because they are our future, it is important to inform the younger generations, to prevent them from making the same mistakes as their ancestors. It’s very important. And if we have funding, we have more funds to develop, we will open the eyes and the mind of many. If we have funds, we can develop more activities and open the eyes and the mind of many people in the world to stop FGM.

 

CJLPA: I think you just said that so beautifully, because the key point with this issue is to raise awareness, but it’s also to educate. Throughout your responses, the underlying problem is, one, mentality: the fact that people think that this is a normal practice, and it is okay to treat women like this. And two, that it’s not a top priority in the agenda and international community as it should be.

 

On that note, I would like to thank you for your time today and for your courage in having to relive this trauma by answering these questions. And, of course, your heroic work for women’s rights by exposing these international crimes of FGM and forced marriage, ultimately giving the word, the voice back to women who have been for so long not empowered by strong female figures such as yourself. What would you like to send out as a final message to the readers and politicians about FGM?

 

MK: My message for politicians and leaders is: I call them to join the fight against female genital mutilation and forced marriage. We need the support. We need the support, and they can support us by engaging themselves seriously, and by taking measures to stop FGM. They cannot talk about gender-based violence of women without talking about FGM.

 

They are leaders, they are politicians and one of their obligations is to make the world better for everyone. So, if they want to make the world better for everyone, they have to help, they must help us to stop FGM and forced marriage. They cannot continue without acting with us. They cannot, and we will continue to call them out, we will continue making advocacy. They must realise that FGM is a crime, it is a crime, and it cannot continue. And if they don’t want to act with us, they are siding with the cutters. Because if they don’t act with us, it is because they accept, or they agree with this practice. If they don’t agree with FGM and forced marriage, they must act now, not tomorrow, it is now they must act. If they don’t act, they side with the cutters.

 

And another message for survivors. Please survivors, we need you to speak louder. Because by speaking louder, you will give the courage to other survivors to talk about their story. It will give courage to other survivors to change their life. You will give courage to other survivors to become change makers, to become activists, to say ‘no, I do not accept being the slave of society, or the slave of a man’. You can give courage to other girls to say ‘I can become a change maker, I can become a leader, I can change the world for me, for my community, and for all the girls and women in the world’. So please speak louder. It is your right to take power over your life and nobody can decide for you what you have to do with your body, with your sexuality, and with your life. You are great, you are great. So let the world know that you are great. You are great.

 

CJLPA: That was so beautifully and powerfully phrased. Thank you very much for saying all of that and for your time today. Thank you so much for your time today. It is truly an honour and very helpful to have you here.

 

MK: Thank you very much Nadia.

 

This interview was conducted by Nadia Jahnecke, Legal Editor and Founder of Human Rights Volume of CJLPA 3. In addition to her role at CJLPA, Nadia is currently working as a Trainee Lawyer and will qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales in March 2024.

 

[1] See ‘FGM in the Americas’ (Equality Now) <https://equalitynow.org/fgm_in_the_americas/> accessed 10 January 2024.

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