Latin America & Caribbean

'Cut with a blade': Colombia indigenous groups discuss FGM

Irene Guasiruma Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Irene Guasiruma says her grandmother told her women who had not been "cut" would make bad wives

Irene Guasiruma is a member of the Embera indigenous group, the second largest in Colombia.

A midwife and a storyteller, she lives in the Wasiruma indigenous community in Valle del Cauca province, in the west of the country.

Sitting on her porch overlooking the green hilly countryside where a few dozen Embera families grow bananas and coffee, she sings a song about love and betrayal.

While it is a common theme in music, the Emberas' views on sex and fidelity have had deep consequences for Irene and other Embera women.

Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Ms Guasiruma says FGM is no longer practised in her community
Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption The community is nestled in the hills of Valle del Cauca

"When a girl was born, a little blade was bought," she says before explaining how a girl's clitoris would be removed in the first weeks after her birth.

"They said that if you hadn't been cut you'd go with many men, become a bad wife and look for other husbands," she recalls her grandmother telling her.

"That is why in the past it was cut, so that women would have a single husband until they died," Ms Guasiruma says.

She insists that female genital mutilation (FGM) is no longer being carried out in the Wasiruma community.

Deadly consequences

But there are Embera in other parts of the country who still practise FGM.

Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Embera women are discussing FGM after the practice led to several deaths in recent years

"They do it with a pair of scissors or a blade or burn the girl's clitoris with a spoon they heat in the fire," explains Laura (not her real name) who belongs to an Embera community in a remote location in western Colombia.

Laura tells the story of her neighbour, who decided to perform FGM on her daughter herself with tragic consequences.

"She had been looking at what the midwives did, and because she didn't want to bother them she did it herself," Laura explains.

"She cut baby's clitoris with a pair of scissors, but she cut too deep and the girl started bleeding."

With no medical help nearby, the baby girl eventually bled to death.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Colombian authorities are trying to eradicate FGM.

UNFPA's representative in Colombia, Jorge Parra, says that unofficial figures suggest that two-thirds of Embera women could have suffered female genital mutilation.

"The main challenge is that this is a traditional practice and many communities believe that it isn't bad," Mr Parra says.

"We respect all traditional practices but those that infringe people's human rights must be abolished," he argues.

African links?

Embera leader Alberto Guasiruma says the community is currently discussing whether FGM, which is practised mainly in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia but is rare in Latin America, should be abandoned.

Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Alberto Guasiruma thinks the Embera community needs to discuss the issue

"Many of the cultural practices are very much part of the indigenous communities and have a strong spiritual element," he says.

"But there are other practices that have become part of the culture but are not originally our own," Mr Guasiruma adds.

He is referring to the theory that FGM was adopted by the Embera in the 18th Century after it was introduced by African slaves brought to Colombia to work in the gold mines.

He says that as with any practice, the community has to ask itself some key questions: "Does it go against life? Or is it healing, preventive or educational?"

'Sacred ritual'

The Embera are not the only indigenous group in Colombia who practise female genital mutilation.

Blanca Lucila Andrade is a member of the Nasa indigenous group. "Our people have also been practising this," she says.

Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Blanca Lucila Andrade says the Nasa community still practise FGM

"I have asked the elders and they say it is a very sacred ritual so that the women don't misbehave."

"I've done it to my daughters and they are very calm, they haven't given me headaches, they haven't changed husband," she explains.

Ms Andrade says that female genital mutilation improves the chances of Nasa women of finding a husband.

She says she was puzzled when people from outside the community told her the practice was harmful.

"They told me it was something bad. I was very surprised," she recalls.

'I can leave this behind'

Under Colombian law, if female genital mutilation results in death it is considered femicide, which carries a harsher sentence than homicide.

Image copyright Natalio Cosoy
Image caption Esmeralda Ruiz says questioning the roots of the practice has made a difference

Ms Andrade says she was worried she could be sent to jail when she first found out that FGM was not an accepted practice outside of her community.

But she insists: "I have done it, but I have never caused any bleeding."

Those trying to convince indigenous groups to abandon FGM say they have been more successful when they have questioned the roots of the practice rather than warn of the possible consequences.

"If the traditional midwives think this belongs to their culture they will stick with it," UNFPA consultant Esmeralda Ruiz says.

"But if they understand that it's not part of the culture they will say: 'I can leave this behind and nothing will happen.'"

Some, like Irene Guasiruma, are already questioning not just the origins of FGM but also the logic behind it.

"It's all a lie," she says.

"Even when it [the clitoris] is cut the woman can end up looking for another husband, swapping him for another man," she argues.

Related Topics

More on this story