An ancient ritual due for sacrifice

May 29, 1998

Millions of women worldwide have suffered the searing pain and harm of clitoral circumcision. African film-maker Ladi Ladebo tells Tim Greenhalgh how he aims to show why the practice must end

Ladi Ladebo is in a Soho sound studio, putting the finishing touches to the second part of In the Name of Tradition, his film on female circumcision in Africa and hoping he has found that rare quality, a sense of balance.

"This is a very complex subject," he says. "The western cosmopolitan practice would be to condemn this behaviour as barbaric, backward, medieval. They would call it 'female genital mutilation'. A common reaction from African women is: 'This is an insult to our culture. You do not understand.' The dialogue is over before it has begun and the practice (of circumcision) is strengthened."

The World Health Organisation and Unicef estimate that there are 130 million women and girls who have suffered clitoral circumcision. In the United Kingdom, the report suggests that around 10,000 girls are likely to suffer the ritual each year.

The WHO identifies three forms of the practice. The least extreme, sunna, is the partial or full removal of the clitoris. The second type is excision - a clitoridectomy and the removal of part or all of the labia minora, the fleshy lips close to the clitoris. The most extreme form is infibulation. It involves the removal of the clitoris and of the sensitive tissue around the vagina. The vagina is then stitched or held closed by thorns. A small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood.

Ladebo's film traces the growing awareness of Sesi, a 19-year-old student of midwifery in a modern hospital. At home, she learns the art of female circumcision from her tradition-bound mother. Her dream is one day to have her own local maternity hospital to deliver and also circumcise babies. But her belief in tradition is challenged by daily evidence in the hospital and her own impending rite of passage.

"Some films make a sensation out of the subject, dwelling on the terror of the young women but this creates anger and resentment. We use the docu-drama style. I we can better explain the intricacies involved through a fictional account," Ladebo says. "The goal is to find a balance between the need for social conformity in line with community identity and the protection of the women against the harmful tradition, through education."

The veteran Nigerian writer/director and his wife Irene have been producing independent African films for 23 years. Circumcision has been declining in urban areas but rising in rural Africa. In April 1997, the supreme court in Egypt threw out legislation banning the practice, which is also on the rise in the United States and Europe.

Hermione Lovel, senior lecturer in the department of general practice at the University of Manchester, believes the approach adopted by the Ladebos is correct. "We have many students whose wives experience problems. There are a significant number of antenatal cases in this country and problems arise through lack of training. The hospital staff often simply don't know how to deal with an infibulated vulva. This is embarrassing for the woman. She may often be used as an unusual case (to teach medical students)."

Dr Lovel sees hope in education and discussion generated by the local community, "where they can question, comment and find out for themselves". She advises students and partners with problems arising from the practice to contact the Foundation of Women's Health, Research and Development or the special units at Guy's and Central Middlesex hospitals. The Ladebos seek to redress the damage done by some overseas aid agencies and other non-governmental organisations that attack female circumcision as barbaric and attempt to educate from an Anglocentric point of view. The Ladebos and their research sources at the Institute of African Studies, Ibadan in Nigeria believe this has resulted in a negative reaction from the cultures under attack. "We hope these films will tell the international agencies who they need to help (rather than lecture). You must first know why people do these things, then re-education may be useful. Even now, with many African local administrators, the influence is from the outside, from the agency perspective."

Working closely with researchers at the institute, they use African actors and students to portray events that have a strong base in fact. The settings are not nationally specific but a hybrid of the continent. This broadens their African appeal but also allows for wider distribution. The aim, again, is to educate internationally on the need to honour the culture while helping to remove the practice. "We are fair to the culture. I have conducted many interviews to help flesh out a detailed picture of the motivations involved in the practice of female circumcision at a time of cultural transition."

Those who help to perpetuate the practice make many claims for it: a rite of passage, meant to build a girl's ability to withstand pain in readiness for motherhood; a curb on promiscuity, a promotion of personal hygiene. More rarely, it is believed fatal for a baby boy's head to touch the clitoris at birth and that circumcision guarantees fertility.

Details of the films' distribution and other information is on the Ladebo's web site (www.sense.co. uk/ladebo/index.html)

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