Mrs. Goundo, a young immigrant to the United States from Mali in West Africa, is faced with a heart-wrenching dilemma: she is terribly homesick for her family and country, but if she brings her little daughter to visit, her family - against Mrs. Gounda's wishes - will snatch her and take her to a female genital exciser. Ritual cutting is illegal in many countries, but far from eradicated, since it is deeply ingrained in local social systems and religious beliefs. Beliefs and myths aside, it causes profound health problems for girls and women, including infections, urine leaking, bleeding to death, pain, and major complications (including higher death rates) in childbirth.
Mrs. Goundo, having lived in the United States for a few years, has learned how dangerous and traumatic this practice is; she also sees that "uncut" women are not evil or loose, as she was taught in her tribal culture. Determined to protect her daughter from it, she must apply for asylum to stay in the United States. The movie makers document this long, tense process, contrasting it with scenes from Mali. The footage includes conversations both with Malian health activists working to eradicate this practice and those who perform it and consider it essential. The Exciser, who brags about cutting 62 little girls in one session, is not a lady you'll quickly forget....
The contrast of the Philadelphia scenes - dreary winter streets, antiseptic offices, nearly empty playgrounds and restaurants - with the lively, colorful Malian street scenes is marked. Mrs. Goundo herself dresses in a black full-body robe while the ladies in Mali dress in a wild, bold, dizzying array of colored patterns. Likewise the kids are playing on the streets and having a great time. Mali is one of the poorest countries on the planet, so probably the kids all being out on the mud streets is related to substandard housing and the absence of schools, but it does evoke the warmth and comfort of life lived in extended, traditional families in a warm climate. The filmakers have captured great beauty in their scenes of Mali, a good balance for a movie which critiques this specific cultural practice.
My two take-aways:
- It will be very important to retrain the excisers. Income generation opps are few in Mali, so until these women have alternatives that afford them respect and livelihood, we'll not see the end of female genital cutting any time soon.
- People love rituals, especially ones which end with big tribal dances and village celebrations. There needs to be something else in girls' lives to celebrate. I'm sure villages that have eradicated this practice have figured out substitues; I hope they celebrate the girls starting school. If anyone knows how this is handled, please leave a comment.
Hats off to Janet Goldwater and Barbara Attie, the filmakers. For more information on the work being done to eliminate female genital cutting, check out their site.