A female genital mutilation (FGM) procedure gone wrong in 1983 changed the course of Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté’s work forever.
Two young twin girls in critical condition were rushed to a local clinic in Guinea, where Kouyaté worked at the time. He did everything he could to save them, but they eventually bled to death. It was his first exposure to the consequences of FGM, the process of intentionally altering or injuring the female genital organs for non-medical reasons that is practiced worldwide across various cultures and traditions.
Kouyaté received the 2020 Nelson Mandela Prize from the United Nations in July for his commitment to ending FGM ever since that horrific encounter. The UN presents the prestigious honor to nominees who dedicate their lives to serve humanity. It's a full-circle moment for Kouyaté, who protested to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid in the 1970s.
Marianna Vardinoyannis, of Greece, a leading figure in the fight to end cancer, also won the 2020 Nelson Mandela Prize award.
Kouyaté and Vardinoyannis have both gone above and beyond in their fields. The human rights organization Vital Voice also selected Kouyaté as a 2018 Solidarity Honoree for his work against FGM.
When FGM was a highly controversial and taboo subject in 1984, Kouyaté helped spearhead an urgent meeting with 16 African countries in Dakar, Senegal. There he launched the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC), where he is now executive director.
Attacking women and girls physically and psychologically is not culturally justifiable, Dr. Morissanda Kouyate, co-winner of the UN Nelson Mandela Prize 2020— Africa Renewal, UN (@africarenewal) July 20, 2020
More - https://t.co/2mJbbjYvbT#NelsonMandelaDaypic.twitter.com/yZVFtwVR7T
“When I started fighting to prevent genital mutilation, people were saying, ‘No, the law is not important,’” Kouyaté told Global Citizen.
Criminalizing FGM did not have much support when Kouyaté started raising awarness about the practice. He insists that laws are necessary to protect girls and women.
People might say they understand the dangers of FGM, Kouyaté said, but without restrictions, young girls are still forced to undergo the practice.
Through education, IAC —which has partnered with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — aims to ensure women and children on the African continent and worldwide can live free of harmful practices, including child marriage and FGM.
Kouyaté has found that showing photos and films of FGM procedures is often enough for decision-makers to take the issue seriously, and is the best strategy. Getting leaders to watch the footage in the first plaece, however, can present the biggest challenge.
Kouyaté remembered one religious leader’s reaction to an FGM film in particular.
“He cried, and he said, ‘I never knew it looked like that. If that is FGM, I will call people to stop it right now,'” he said.
One of the reasons FGM is difficult to stop is because many people who carry out the procedure think they are doing a good thing for their daughters and granddaughters, Kouyaté explained.
“The women who are taking a knife and cutting the girls, we are trying to convince them first,” he said.
👏👏👏— End FGM European Network (@ENDFGM_Network) August 6, 2020
Like 2020 Mandela Price laureate, Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté, we believe in the right to bodily autonomy.
FGM violates this fundamental right. We must protect girls at all cost and #endFGM!
Read more on Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté and his work: https://t.co/RtalcGPWPmpic.twitter.com/3aFxwL8EuJ
UNICEF estimates that 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM in 31 countries where the practice is most prevalent. Despite the slow rate of progress in ending FGM, Kouyaté is hopeful. Some nations have made significant gains in lowering FGM rates. In Africa, 26 of the 29 countries where FGM is most common now have laws against it.
Kouyaté said he’d noticed the misconception that FGM is embedded in African culture and has seen that belief perpetuated even in academia.
“FGM is never part of any culture because culture is the sum of good practices, it’s the sum of the values of a group of human beings or entire countries, it is added value,” Kouyaté said. “Culture is positive. Cutting the genitals of girls is not a part of culture, it's just tradition, bad tradition.”
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an additional threat to the progress made to eliminate FGM, as harmful practices are on the rise. Programs to help end FGM have had to stop operating during the crisis.
While scientists are searching for a COVID-19 vaccine, Kouyaté pointed out that medicine can't eradicate FGM.
“Female genital mutilation and child marriage — these traditions we don’t have vaccinations against, there is no immunization,” he said. “We have to convince people.”
Eliminating FGM entirely requires laws to ban the practice on an international level and a shift in how people participate in the fight to end it, Kouyaté said.
Young boys and men should first respect women to prevent FGM, rather than offer to help suvivors of the practice once it’s too late, he added.
What's more, when women and girls are empowered, they can advocate for themselves against FGM.
“We have to let them be involved in the fight,” Kouyaté said. “They will defend themselves. Saying, ‘No, nobody will cut me.’”
It can be difficult for people to understand why ending FGM has not happened sooner. Funders, who have invested in initiatives to eliminate the practice, have questioned the timeline, Kouyaté said.
“For people like me who have been involved in this struggle since the 1980s, we know that really we are moving forward,” he said. “Why? Because first, everywhere in the world, now people know about female genital mutilation.”
Previously, the practice was incredibly stigmatized, and people only knew about it if it happened in their community, Kouyaté explained. Now the tradition is spreading to other places around the world due to immigration.
“At the airport, you can check the suitcase, you can check people’s pockets, you can check their bodies, but you cannot check their spirit,” he said.
Children who visit their families’ home countries where FGM is more ubiquitous are especially at risk of being cut. Warning girls of this threat and providing resources to get help if they are subjected to the practice is one approach to prevent FGM, Kouyaté said.
France has successfully implemented medical checks for girls at risk of undergoing FGM annually and when they return from going abroad.
Kouyaté advised that countries implement restrictions that make it clear to immigrants that FGM is forbidden. Recognizing FGM as a human rights issue that violates women’s integrity worldwide is also crucial to stopping it.
“The fight against female genital mutilation isn't only an African struggle,” Kouyaté said. “It's not a European struggle. It's not an American struggle. This is for world humanity. We have to fight together to come together.”