Evaluation of Polygyny (Polygamy) & Female Circumcision

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor, QMRP
James Mamoo Coleman, MD


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 7, 2006


As you may be aware, it is a daunting task to search for and find appropriate answers to difficult issues regarding cultural traditions. The first difficulty is for the researcher to be fair and objective or, at least, do his/her utmost to be so - in attempting to put him/herself in the position of those who practice a particular cultural tradition. However, this has not been the case. Usually, the cultural practice is condemned, without knowing anything about it, and the evaluation is based entirely on the researcher’s ethnocentric orientation, which is not only subjective, but also biased and a blatant violation of cultural relativism.

It is against his backdrop that the “Evaluation of Polygyny (Polygamy) and Female Circumcision” is conducted. As such, absolute objectivity here is not possible, since it is beyond our limited capacity. All we have done through this research is to approach these sensitive subject matters with respect for those who are affected by the practice, and at the same time to understand the position of those who attached high premium to these traditional cultural practices.

According to a prominent African scholar, Professor Ali A. Mazrui, every human society, culture serves as the catalyst responsible for establishing the behaviors that regulate the action of those that live in a society. He went on to say, “Culture provides lenses of perception, the way of looking at reality, a world view; culture provides standards of evaluations; what is good and what is evil; what is legitimate and what is illegitimate are rooted in criteria provided by culture. Culture conditions motivation; what motivates individuals to act or to refrain from acting, what inspires individuals to perform well or to really exert themselves, is partly inspired by cultural factors”. In addition, “Culture is the medium of communication; the communicative aspects of culture range from language in the literal sense to physical gestures and modes of dress. “Culture provides a basis of stratification, a pecking order in society. Status, rank and class are partly the outcome of a cultural” (Ali A. Mazrui, The African Condition. New York: University of Cambridge, 1980, pp. 47-48). On the other hand, most anthropologists view human cultures in terms of cultural relativism, the concept that all cultures are orderly systems within which customs and institutions are rationalized in their own terms. Thus, customs and behaviors that are considered sinful in one culture may be totally acceptable, even praised, in another. For example, the Hindu’s belief prohibits the consumption of beef and guarantees special treatment of cows. It is viewed as a functional and rational behavior, not only within the religious tradition of the sacred cow, but also in terms of the usefulness of the cow as a traction animal and as a source of dung for fertilizer and fuel. Human cultures sometimes contain customs and values counter to human welfare. Classic examples are slavery, headhunting, cannibalism, racism, and legal segregation, just to name a few (Charles Wagler, “Culture” Grolier Interactive Multimedia Encyclopedia Compact Disc. Grolier Interactive Inc., 1997).

First, let’s look at the definition of tradition. Merriam Webster Dictionary defined Tradition as any established customary pattern of thought or action – the handing down of beliefs and customs by word or mouth or by example without written instruction. Overtime when culture change, customs and values sometimes run counter to human welfare and tradition.

The problem people of color encounters (i.e., Africans, Asians and Native Americans, etc.) from Europeans/European Americans, some assimilated Africans and missionaries from these areas is, they use different set of yardstick to evaluate these cultural practices of people of color. Most of the time, their assessments are based on European/American and in some cases, Arab cultural hegemonies. And if the practice is not of European/American origin, than that practice is viewed as WRONG or SATANIC. What this approach does is, it creates widespread misunderstanding and insensitivity to other people’s culture.

Similar practice takes place when one engages in the discussion of polygamy (polygyny: one husband and several wives). Polygynists are often accused of being the sole benefactor in such matrimonial arrangement. One such argument was made in an article: “The Cock And The Gun: Liberia's Continuing Legacy Of Violence And Male Domination”, written by Stephanie C. Horton. It was published in the July/September 1998 Edition of The Perspective. The approach and manner in which the author discussed polygamy appeared as if she was upset with former President Charles Taylor for proposing that, “all the ethnic groups in Liberia must intermarry with one another, and he would set the example by marrying a Mandingo woman”, while he’s already married. See http://www.theperspective.org/cock.html.

In her disagreement or anger if we may call it that, she went on to denigrate an entire cultural institution as well as men in general as the ONLY benefactors of polygynous relationship. She avers:

“…This is clearly the very first time in Liberian history that an African custom has been glorified in this way from the high office of the presidency. By proposing to legitimize polygamous marriage, Mr. Taylor has not only caused a stir, but has also created the condition for potentially explosive conflict between the Christian church and traditional custodian of this age-old African custom”. In support of this line of reasoning, she went on to quote from the book, The Stillborn, by a Nigerian author name, Zaynab Akali.
“…The three major reasons for polygamy, as offered by African feminist Awa Thiam are (1) the exploitation of women for free labor, women as food producers (2) sexual license for men, and (3) "commercial" use of women.
“Thiam sees all these as linked to the practices of female genital mutilation (sexual and reproductive control by torture), forced marriages and child brides (of financial and social benefit to the family and not necessarily the woman). Nevertheless, the higher divorce rate among illiterate, rural and low income African women provides an often overlooked understanding of traditional women's response to their plight, and refutes the current interpretation and sociological falsification of the African women as helpless, powerless victim, always compliant in their own oppression”.
In her attempt to vent her disagreement with Charles Taylor’s position, serious misrepresentation of her analysis abounded. For example, “…This is clearly the very first time in Liberian history that an African custom has been glorified in this way from the high office of the presidency. By proposing to legitimize polygamous marriage…”, she argued. Evidently, she failed to realize that polygamous marriages were LEGAL in Liberia before Charles Taylor was born. Also, she is un-substantiating in the proceeding statement: “…the higher divorce rate among illiterate, rural and low income African women provides an often overlooked understanding of traditional women's response to their plight, and refutes the current interpretation and sociological falsification of the African women as helpless, powerless victim, always compliant in their own oppression”. While this could be the case in Nigeria, Nigeria does not represent the entire continent of Africa. Liberia has had many women in leadership positions including African Liberians women (native/indigenous). The recent election of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first woman elected president in Africa says a lot regarding the respect that Liberian men have for Liberian women.
As a matter of fact, in Liberia, “the higher divorce rate is not among illiterate, rural and low income African women”. It is the other way around – among the assimilated Western-educated Liberian women. This is altogether another subject for discussion.

On the same subject, Saye R. Gbetu published in the September 13, 2001 Edition of The Perspective an article titled: “A Case Against Legalizing Polygamy”. Gbetu wrote, “…Reference to African cultural values in an August 14, 2001 Inquirer newspaper article, ‘At 51st Session: Legislature Faces Tough Challenge,’ apparently in an attempt to justify or garner support for legalizing polygamy in Liberia portrays culture as though it is a static phenomenon. Culture, as a matter of fact, is always in a state of flux. It is not cast in concrete! As a society grows intellectually, materially, and morally, its culture is constantly being created, recreated, and sifted. Thus, in proportion to their intellectual, material, and moral development, a people continually evaluate their culture. They not only weed out the bad and keep the good, but also pass on the good to the next generation”.
In the article, Gbetu made some good points, but his approach to the issue is similar to that of Horton; he responded to Taylor’s proposal with anger. The problem with writing with anger is, you tend to make serious mistakes, and that’s what Gbetu did.
For example, Gbetu wrote, “I, too, am an African. More importantly, I relish African values. However, I consider legalizing polygamy an asinine and farcical display of African values. If, for Liberian men, the legalization of polygamy is an attempt to fulfill the promise of ‘milk’ and ‘honey’ during the 1989 ‘Revolution’ or ‘DeathVolution’, what about Liberian women? What about their ‘milk’ and ‘honey’”?
What Gbetu failed to realize is, prior to the arrival of the settlers from North America, polygyny (polygamy) was the legal form of marriage among the majority of the indigenous population. The issue we find with both articles is, they talked about the practice of polygamy as if it is something new in Liberia; and in their anger towards Taylor, and they failed to acknowledge its legal existence in Liberia. That’s our concern!

For the purpose of providing the facts, find below a particular case in which the Liberian legislature passed an act in 1882 making polygamy legal:

“…While the practice of wardship was analogous to established concept of apprenticeship and could be justified by the principles of the settler standard, the sexual liaisons implicit in African offers of women to settler men was quite a differ matter. This intimate channel of interaction, once begun, continued as a locally accepted custom of informal polygamy in the upriver settlements. Settler men, both married and single, had sexual relationships outside the bonds of lawful, Christian marriage. Outside wives and children created significant kinship ties between Africans and settlers. Sexual liaisons of this nature had repercussions on the settler family and strained the ideal of Christian monogamy, however. In 1893, for instance, Patsey Gordon, of Caldwell, filed for divorce from her husband, Albert J. Gordon, charging that in 1887 he had deserted her to live in adultery with Guarnyer Baebo, a Vai woman, thus contravening his marital obligations, Five years earlier (1882) the Liberian legislature had moved to recognize the obvious consequences of informal polygamy by passing an act providing uniform procedures to legitimate children born outside lawful wedlock. The act recognized in law an existing social practice. It protected the settle-family structure by establishing the means for incorporating outside children…” (Tom W. Shick, Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in the Nineteenth-Century Liberia, p. 100)

Let it be stated here that this law was put in place sorely to legitimize the children the settlers had with African Liberians women. As for the natives (Liberians of ethnic background), they did not need any “legislative act” to legalize their relationship and their children. Based on their culture, any child born into this world is legitimate – a general practice in Africa

Moreover, in order to contribute to the discussion, Nyanseor published an article in the July/September 1998 issue of The Perspective, in which he explained the origin and the reasons polygamous marriage was adopted as the legitimate form of marriage in Liberia. The title of that article is: “Polygyny (Polygamy) Is Already A Practice”. In that article, Nyanseor explained:
“…From our understanding of culture, it is safe to say that one of the key responsibilities of culture is the establishment of social institutions which will maintain the orderly existence of a society. Secondly, these institutions serve to promote ‘a system of values, and these values are a set of ideas, concepts, and practices to which strong sentiments are attached’.
“In view of the above, one can easily understand how polygyny became the ideal institution of marriage in Africa. However, the rationale given for the practice of polygyny in Africa is provided by two schools of thought - the Social and Economic schools. Proponents of the Social School explained that at the time polygyny was established as the legal form of marriage, the ratio of women to men in Africa was about 10 to 1. As the result, those who were responsible for establishing social institutions - the elders, including women, decided to come up with a marriage system that would address this problem. Their aim at the time was to provide a balance and equal distribution of social, material, security and economic benefits to both women and men.
“Furthermore, these social architects or elders felt that if the problem regarding the needs of unmarried women were not addressed, what would eventually happen was the snatching away of other women's husbands, or the unmarried women would, for example, engage in prostitution since as human beings, their sexual, social, psychological and economic needs had to be taken care of.
“On the other hand, the proponents of the Economic School reasoned that polygyny was established to address the prevailing economic issues of the period. They explained that during the Pre-colonial era in Africa, the economic activities were centered on subsistence agriculture. This type of farming requires lots of manpower. In order to establish the mode of production that was going to be beneficial to the entire society, the polygynous form was preferred; since this form of marriage emphasized collective responsibilities, communal ownership of farms, wealth and the economic benefits are to the advantage of extended family.
“The major concept of both the Social and the Economic Schools was centered around the male marrying more than one wife depending on the amount of dowry (bridal price) he or his family could afford. In the traditional African society where this arrangement was prevalent, a man who had four wives, was obligated to provide farm for each of his wives. The children and the relatives of each wife were required to work and attend to the operation and maintenance of the farm. The husband on the other hand, was responsible in providing periodic assistance as well as supervision to each farm.
“The resources derived from these farms were pooled together to provide material and economic benefits for the entire extended family. With this type of arrangement, all members of the extended family were better cared for”.
This brings us to another point in the continued assault on the cultural tradition of African Liberians. For instance, as far as we can remember, when we were growing up in Monrovia and upcountry, the display of female breast was sanctioned by traditional society as a sign of beauty. Many of us grew up around our grandmothers’, mothers’, aunts’ and sisters’ breasts exposed in our homes and the community without thinking it was inappropriate, until the missionaries from abroad (Europe and America) said it was nudity, therefore, wrong. Then they became to impose their cultural practices on us, forgetting that it was God who first sanctioned this cultural practice, until Satan fooled the first family, Adam and Eve to considered God’s intended display of beauty, shameful.

Since these missionaries were unsuccessful in changing these practices in our homes and compound, they started with the young children entrusted in their care at the mission schools operated by them. Instead of educating them, they also imposed their cultural hegemony on these children. As the result of this indoctrination, children who at one time were proud of their culture and language became ashamed and resentful of their language and cultural practices. Their generation, and generation after them became “civilized” (kwii, a Liberian description of civilize). It was these people, missionaries, Americo-Liberians as well as African Liberian wards who established the paradigm or standards that is followed today by which almost all African Liberians’ cultural traditions are judged negatively.

In retrospect, tradition starts and changes overtime if not it dissipates. For example, the original sin which, Adam as head of the human family committed, and then blamed on Eve, whom he said, "The woman you put here with me --she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it." God then said to Eve: "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you." And to Adam He said: "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree.... Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life..."

This Christian conception of the creation of Adam and Eve is narrated in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree planted in the middle of the Garden. The serpent seduced Eve to eat from it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat it with her. When God rebuked Adam for what he did, he put the blame on Eve. The punishment God prescribed for Adam and Eve is to work and bear children in order to continue God’s creation by populating the earth. This punishment is not a reward. In pure and simple language, the SEX or intimacy involved was not intended for pleasure or enjoyment. For violating God’s Law, He intended for Adam and Eve (the first family) to continue His creation – populate the earth with human beings, who will then take care of His paradise, using the “free will” He gave to MAN (male and female) to make decisions. But MAN being used to having his own way, decided to take matters into his/her own hands by deviating from God’s original plan for which He had intended for us. As the result, throughout the ages, various cultures began to experiment with sexual relationships, dictated by the period in which they live. Overtime, practices that were once considered taboo, become the acceptable practice. These new practices are either from within the local cultures/traditions or influenced by an outside dominant culture.

For example, sex during our grandparents and parents generation was performed differently, compared to ours, today. During those periods, sexual intimacy was for the purpose of procreation – to beget children that will continue the human race. The most common or preferred sexual position at the time was the so-called “Missionary Position” (the male partner on top of the female). It was a taboo for the female to perform sexual act the other way around (the female on top). Furthermore, one would have been considered sick or out of their mind to suggest or engage in oral sex because it was the acceptable practice. That’s the way society operates – be it European or African. Society sanctions behaviors!

Brief History of Female Circumcision
Now, lets proceed with the discussion of Female Circumcision. However, in order to discuss it with some understanding, let’s first review a brief history of Female Circumcision so as to find out its social and economic relevance in societies that practice it. Female Circumcision is sometimes referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This procedure involves cutting away the female’s external genitalia, which usually includes the clitoris and surrounding skin (labia minora). The remaining edges are sewn together, which leaves only a small opening for urination and menstruation. (Rod Plotnik, Introduction to Psychology (Fifth Edition) “Worthwhile Tradition or Cruel Mutilation?” p. 346, 1999)

The term FGM covers three varieties of genital mutilations, and they are:

1. Sunna Circumcision – consists of the removal of the prepuce and/or the tip of the clitoris. Sunna in Arabic means “tradition”;

2. Clitoridectomy (also referred to as excision) – consists of the removal of the entire clitoris (both prepuce and glands). And the removal of the adjacent labia, and

3. Infibulation (also referred to as pharaonic circumcision) – This is the most extreme form. It consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia (majora and minora), and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sew with catgut or thread. A small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood.

An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband. (Mariannie Sarkis Female Genital Mutilation, www.hamp.hampshire.edu/~mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html - 1995)

Circumcision of the female is not a new subject. Early writings testified that this practice was known and discussed by physicians of the Roman Empire. Bryk in 1935 compiled a comprehensive book on the history and practice of female circumcision. The 265 references abstracted in the text covered the circumcision of the female from the ancient Egyptian era (approximately 1500 B.C.) to the present day. The value of this procedure in improving function has been accepted by various cultures for the past 3,500 years (W.G. Rathmann, M.D., Female Circumcision: Indications and a New Technique- www.noharmm.org/femcirctech.htm)

As a matter of fact, in Europe and the United States, clitoridectomy was performed in the nineteenth century to treat epilepsy, hysteria, insanity, and masturbation. For example, France, Sweden, England, and Australia are among the countries reported to have practiced female circumcision. (emphasis is ours)

FGM in a variety of its forms is practiced in Middle Eastern countries (the two Yemens, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Southern Algeria). In Africa, FGM is practiced in Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Egypt, Mozambique, Sudan, etc. In Africa and the Middle East, Muslims, Coptic Christians, members of various indigenous groups, Protestants, and Catholics perform some form of FGM. Also, it has been estimated that more than 30 countries in Africa still practice FGM, and even more in the Middle East, and Asia. In Somalia and Djibouti, 98% of girls have had FGM. The estimate worldwide, are from 100 to 114 million women and girls. (Statistics, www.arts.unimelb.edu)

The Cultural Basis for the Practice of FGM in Liberia
What is the cultural basis or the reasons given for the circumcision of females? Let us look at Liberia for example. Seven ethnic groups in Liberia (Kpelle, Bassa, Vai, Dan, Ma, Dei and Gola) practice female circumcision. The practice is part of their cultures and traditions passed on by their ancestors. Female circumcision is part of the curriculum of two Political, Social and Educational institutions. These institutions are the Poro and Sande. The Poro School is exclusively for males while the Sande is for females. Both schools are institutions of learning. Generally, both the Poro and Sande schools regulate conduct that pertained specifically to their operations as religious and educational institutions. The activities that are regulated and supervised are indigenous medical practitioners, including social, political, and economic practices. The senior members of these institutions judged disputes between high-ranking members of the community, and they either give or withhold support for the chief in policy matters affecting the community as a whole. (Thomas D. Roberts, et al, Area Handbook for Liberia, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972, pp. 71-73)

Furthermore, the Poro and Sande institutes provide instructions in the areas of building, road construction, sanitation, midwifery, home economics, arts and crafts, music and drama, leadership, government, law (rules) and military skills. Male and female circumcisions are part of the curriculum of these institutions. These institutions are referred to as secret societies because their meetings and rituals are held in secrecy. Nonmembers are not allowed to attend their meetings. And when decisions required execution, they are often done in secret. The time spent in training varies among the ethnic groups. But the average time is about two to three years. (Ibid. p. 72)

Unlike Nyanseor who is of the Klao (Kru) ethnic group, Dr. Coleman is of the Gola ethnic group in Liberia, one of the ethnic groups that practice female circumcision. Based on our research and Dr. Coleman’s personal experience and observation regarding female circumcision, the kind of female circumcision that the Sande institute performed does not involved the removal of the entire clitoris (both prepuce and glands); the joining and scraping the sides of the vulva across the vagina, and securing it with thorns or sewing it with catgut or thread. Africans of the Islamic faith and Middle Eastern countries practice these forms of FGM, However, the procedure practiced by the Sande too, has its own problems, and those problems will be addressed in this article.

There are several reasons given for the practice of the various types of female circumcisions. According to Dr. W.G. Rathmann, the procedure is done due to two common abnormalities:

“The two common problems that make the highly sensitive area of the clitoris unable to be stimulated are phimosis and redundancy. Sebaceous glands about sic (above) the clitoris attempt to prevent adhesions of the prepuce to it. This sometimes fails and the clitoris is tightly adherent to the prepuce. This defect is recorded as 1 plus or 25 per cent of the normal surface adherent, to 4 plus or complete coverage. A prepuce for the protection of the clitoris is normal and useful, but if it is excessive and extends past the eminence of clitoris it can prevent contact and is harmful”. (W.G. Rathmann, M.D., Female Circumcision: Indications and a New Technique – www.noharmm.org/femcirctech.htm)

There are many other “reasons” for these practices. For example, in some cultures, a girl who is not circumcised is considered “unclean” by local villagers and therefore unmarriageable. Furthermore, a girl who does not have her clitoris removed is considered a great danger and ultimately fatal to a man if her clitoris touches his penis (Mariannie Sarkis Female Genital Mutilation, www.hamp.hampshire.edu/~mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html - 1995) Evelyn Shaw, RN, MS, advances five basic reasons for the practice of female circumcision. She says that the interpretation of the rationale for female circumcision varies, depending on the background and culture of the researcher. The most common reasons postulated according to her are: economic factors, sexual control, and positive effects on childbirth, religious beliefs and traditional, and cosmetic and curative effects. (Evelyn Shaw, Female Circumcision, American Journal of Nursing, June 1985, p. 686). Let’s start with the economic factors.

Economically, female circumcision is especially important in societies that are patrilineal and agrarian. The continuation of the patriarchal system is assured where infibulation is practiced since the new bride’s virginity is visibly guaranteed by “the chastity belt of the flesh” and therefore, succession and inheritance of property cannot be questioned. Marriage contract transfers sexual rights as well as rights to the father of the bride to the bridegroom. Proof of virginity is an important prerequisite to this transaction. Since an uncircumcised woman would not be considered marriageable – the only viable future for most of these women – many parents see is to have their daughters circumcised. Circumcision is an important source of income for those involved in its performance; therefore, such people have a vested interest in perpetuating the practice.

Sexual Control
Female circumcision is believed to reduce sexual desire and vulnerability to sexual temptation; it is used to reinforce the woman’s passive-receptive role. Excision of the clitoris is also believed to remove the masculine element in the young girl and prevent the organ from growing and thus increasing her desire and capacity for sex – which may not be matched by her husband’s. In many areas too much sex is considered bad for the husband. Furthermore, since a man is often allowed more than one wife, reduced sexual desire in wives is considered necessary. Some groups also believe that the clitoris contains a poison-like substance that can harm the husband. One researcher reports that in Australia, some tribes remove the prepuce from the clitoris to reduce frigidity.

Effects on Childbirth
In many countries where female circumcision is practiced, infant mortality is extremely high. Some cultures believe that if the clitoris touches the baby’s head during childbirth the infant will die. Others think if a nursing mother has intercourse the sperm will contaminate the mother’s milk and the baby will become sick.

Religious Beliefs and Tradition
Both religious and traditional beliefs are key contributing factors to the practice of female circumcision. In some cultures, the surgery has been handed down from ancient puberty rites. But the belief in female circumcision is not limited to any one religion. In some areas of Africa, Christians, Muslims, and Jews practice some form of female circumcision. Some anthropologists believed that the practice may have been a primitive effect to prevent evil spirits from entering the vagina. [emphasis ours]

Cosmetic or Curative Effects
In many of the countries in which female circumcision is practiced, the clitoris is considered ugly and something that impedes intercourse. It is not unusual to hear that “a woman should be smooth and a man lumpy.” As indicated earlier, clitoridectomy was performed in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century to treat epilepsy, hysteria, insanity, and masturbation [emphasis ours] (Ibid. p. 686). Even today, tattoo parlors are abundant in every western country engaging in female’s clitoris piercing, inner labia piecing, outer labia piecing, triangle piecing, hood piecing, breast torture, play piercing of the breasts, men’s’ penis piecing. Also included are whole body tattooing, tongue splitting, male genital breading, piecing of nose, tongue, lip, nipple, naval, genital piercing, and implantation of small objects under the skin of the shaft of the penis; piercing of the male genitals (apadravya, frenum, guiche, etc.). see
(http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/10-female/ http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/10-female/, Evelyn Shaw, Female Circumcision, American Journal of Nursing, June 1985, p. 686)

Problems Associated with the Practice of Female Circumcision
What are some of the problems associated with the practice of female circumcision? Apart from the (social, economic, religious, cosmetic and traditional) reasons given for the practice of female circumcision, there are several medical problems associated with the practice. Paramount among them is, they are immediate and long-term complications. Some of the immediate complications are: hemorrhage, at times leading to hypovolumic shock, dehydration as result of water restriction following the surgery. Another major component is contacting infections. It can be very grave, and at many times causing septicemia or Tetanus. Tetanus is a very devastating complication that commonly occurred as the direct result of the use of unsterilized surgical instruments and materials for the performance of female circumcision. (Mariannie Sarkis Female Genital Mutilation www.hamp.hampshire.edu/~mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html - 1995)

Some of the long-term complications include sexual frigidity, genital malformation, delayed menarche, chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, recurrent urinary retention and infection, vesico vaginal fistulae and an entire range of obstetrical and gynecological complications, thus exposing the fetus to a range of infectious diseases as well as facing the risk of having the baby’s head crushed in the damaged birth canal. In such cases, the infibulated mother must undergo another operation whereby she is “opened” further to insure the safe birthing of her child (Ibid. p. 2).

According to SI-KATA’s Mission Statement, the year (1999) as every year, an estimated two million girls are candidates for genital mutilation: one child every five minutes. Of this shocking number, 15 % die as a direct result of this practice. Those who survive, usually suffer for years with chronic pain and infections, hemorrhaging, bladder, urinary and kidney disorders, extreme complications during pregnancy and sexual intercourse, and a loss of sexual sensitivity. (Marisa N. Bocci, SI-KATA Mission Statement)

Most Female Genital Mutilations (FGM) are done in unsanitary conditions in which a midwife uses unclean sharp instruments such as razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives, and pieces of glass. These instruments are frequently used on several girls in succession and are really cleaned, causing the transmission of a variety of viruses such as the HIV virus, and other infections. Antiseptic techniques and anesthesia are generally not used, or for that matter, heard of. This is akin to a doctor who uses the same surgical instrument on a number of women at the same time without cleaning any of them. (Mariannie Sarkis Female Genital Mutilation, www.hamp.hampshire.edu/~mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html – 1995)

Beyond the initial pains of the operation, FGM has long-term physiological, sexual, and psychological effects. The unsanitary environment under which FGM takes place results in infections of the genital and surrounding areas and often results in the transmission of the HIV virus that can cause AIDS. Some of the other health consequences of FGM include primary fatalities as a result of shock, hemorrhage or septicemia. (Ibid.)

To further emphasize these medical concerns, International Model Waris Dirie and Garba Diallo are worth referencing here. According to Waris Dirie:

“Mama positioned me on the rock. She sat behind me and pulled my head against her chest, her legs straddling my body. I circled my arms around her thighs. She placed a piece of root from an old tree between my teeth. ‘Bite on this.’ I was frozen with fear. ‘This is going to hurt!’ I mumbled over the root.

“Mama leaned over whispered, ‘Try to be a good girl, baby. Be brave for Mama, and it’ll go fast.’ I peered between my legs and saw the gypsy, the old women looked at me sternly, and a clear look in her eyes, then foraged through an old carpetbag. She reached inside with her long fingers and fished out a broken razor blade. I saw dried blood on the jagged edge. She spit on it and wiped it on her dress. While she was scrubbing, my world went dark as Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes.

“The next thing I felt was my flesh being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The feeling was indescribable. I didn’t move, telling myself the more I did, the longer the torture would take. Unfortunately, my legs began to quiver and shake uncontrollably of their own accord, and I prayed, please, God, let it be over quickly. Soon it was, because I passed out.” (Reader’s Digest, “Silent No More,” Waris Dirie & Cathleen Miller, June 1999, p. 192)
According to Garba Diallo, “…There was no anesthesia. We were kept in the bush for one month and had a camp leader who taught us almost everything about life in our community and that we had become men and responsible members of the community. (Garba Diallo, “Indigenous Learning Forms in West Africa: The Case of Mauritania”)
Our Findings
Prior to starting this research, we were of the opinion that female circumcision was performed only in Africa and the Middle East. The initial materials we read and those, with whom we had discussions regarding female circumcision, portrayed and talked only about the negative aspects of the practice in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In most cases, the practice was condemned and the blame was directed at men, who were seen as the sole benefactors of the practice. What this approach does – it reinforced the position of those who believe in the practice.

For example, those that practice FGM are involve in these practices – be it initiation rites, attached high premium to these traditional cultural practices. According to Dr. John S. Mbiti, "The blood which is shed during the physical operation binds the person to the land and consequently to the departed members of his society. It says that the individual is alive, and that he or she now wishes to be tied to the community and people, among whom he or she has been born as a child. This circumcision blood is like making a covenant, or solemn agreement, between the individual and his people. Until the individual has gone through the operation, he is still an outsider. Once he has shed his blood, he joins the stream of his people, he becomes truly one with them. (Mbiti, John S., Introduction to African Religion, p. 93,1975)

What needs to be considered here is, the history of mankind is the history of stages of development, which is true of medical technology or any practice for that matter. For example, if medical practices of the Middle Ages were used today, they will be considered inhumane and barbaric. As societies advance, medieval practices were improved upon. The same holds true for African and Asian societies.
However, we need to be aware that there are always disingenuous individuals in the waiting to exploit the negative aspects of a tradition for their own benefit. A classic case is that of Ms. Regina Danson, a Ghanaian immigrant, who wrote in her affidavit that, ``…I will be mutilated, and my lover will be found and executed,'' …after that, I will have to live the rest of my life in shame.''

This article was published January 16, 2003 under the headline: “Ghanaian Immigrant Found Guilty of Lying”. Tom Hayes of the Associated Press wrote the article. According to the article, Ms. Danson was granted asylum after she claimed she was a disgraced tribal princess who would face sexual mutilation if deported to Ghana. The article added, “Her tale of woe outraged the public and won her support from feminist Gloria Steinem, actress Julia Roberts and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Officials now say the tale wasn't true. A federal jury in Brooklyn deliberated about five hours Wednesday before finding Danson, 33, guilty of lying to immigration officials”.

The compelling facts we discovered during our research, which for example, showed the effects FGM has on females, we reached the conclusion that not all-cultural and traditional practices are of benefit to the people they professed to benefit. In view of the above, we support changing those aspects of a culture or tradition that have been proven harmful and those that prevent an individual from making a choice in matters that affect his/her well-being. Equally so, we support those cultural and traditional practices that have helped or will help to improve humanity. Nonetheless, for such a culture or tradition to remain relevant, it has to be flexible enough to incorporate new realities, without which it will be seriously opposed. On the other hand, since it is not an easy task to change behaviors or cultural and traditional practices, what we would suggest is for those who find problems with the practice of FGM, is to educate those who practice the procedure regarding the medical and psychological damage the practice does to females.

Furthermore, due to the large number of FGM cases and the many deaths the procedure has caused convinced us to also recommend that these practices be improved upon by using modern medical technology and techniques if those who practice it refused to abolish it. In addition, we recognize that the method involved in performing female circumcision “can only be abolished by a grassroots approach which would take into consideration all aspects of a particular culture and try to work within that system of beliefs to eradicate this no less than torturous practice” (Mariannie Sarkis Female Genital Mutilation, www.hamp.hampshire.edu/~mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html – 1995). Any approach short of this, will be like putting gasoline on fire. Because those who considered female circumcision as a cultural tradition attached strong sentiments to it, which makes it difficult for them to easily abandon the practice - this includes women as well.

Throughout this research, we gained valuable insight and knowledge about FGM. In fact, we became more aware of the physical and psychological danger associated with FGM. It is our belief that “Positive Education” is the only way out. By “Positive Education” we mean, an educational approach that acknowledges the cultural basis for the practice; an approach that does not only engage in condemnation but instead, provides medical rationale and education for the practice to be improved or stopped. With this approach, some successes are likely to be achieved.

It should not be mistaken here that the authors of this article are so blind to a tradition that poses threat and danger to its members, and yet vow to support it at all cost. That’s not the case here. However, if any institution or practice is to be evaluated, it must be done on the basis of the positive as well as the negative; by taking into consideration its history and contributions to that society. We take this position because every time the issue regarding polygyny (polygamy) and female circumcision come up for discussion, the blame is always directed at men. In other words, men are accused of being the benefactors. In most cases, such conclusion is reached out of ignorance.

Society cannot continue to behave in this way – rush to judgment. Westerners are in the habit of calling for abolishing or closing down traditional practices or institutions without knowing anything about them. All they know is, it is not like theirs. Westerners/Americans do not call for abolishing a practice or closing down a university because one department within the university has caused some harm to individuals. What is done in this case is, they make some improvement in the area or solve the problem it poses, and if that doesn’t work, then that area will not be accredited; but they do not close down or abolish the entire institution or university due to the problem it caused. Why isn’t the same approach or rule applied when it involves African cultural, social and political institutions? Here is where our disagreement or point of departure is! Our position is, the same approach or rule should be applied when it involved our traditional institutions of learning. Circumcision of male and female is not the only function for which these traditional learning centers were envisioned and established. First and foremost, it would make much sense to call for the improvement of their method first, and then if that fails, then a recommendation or abolishment due to the immanent health and safety danger that particular procedure or method caused, and not the entire institution.

To do otherwise is absurd. But yet, sometime a ago, the former UN Ambassador Jacques Klein and some westernized Liberians called for abolishing the Poro and Sande traditional centers of learning, which is an insult to the Liberian people, and African people in general. What these individuals failed to realize is – the functions of these institutions are not limited to the performance of male and female circumcision. For example, prior to our contact with westerners, the Kwe Society (Social and Educational Training Institution), found among the Kwa Speaking Group of Liberia, which includes, the Klao (Kru) in Rivercess, Bassa (slighting different), Grebo and Krahn, Belle, Dei had a system in place in which their people were taught various skills and disciplines.

Unlike the Poro and Sande institutions, whose schools stay in session from 1 to 3 years, the Kwe remained in section for either days or weeks of intensive training. The Kwe societies’ training consisted of obedience to GOD, responsibility to tribe, family, community, religion, moral, ethics, medicine, such skills as fishing, hunting, farming, warfare, building, leadership, etc.

Yet, “Cultural institutions such as the Poro and the Sande have been bastardized beyond recognition, robbed of their substance as once authority entities which brought cohesion and security for many peasants and rural dwellers. To ensure that these institutions fall within the President's [Taylor] psyche of lawlessness and disorder, Taylor recently ordered all cabinet ministers to join these societies even if the ministers harbour no beliefs in them. But as all ministers failing to attend a prayer service were dismissed and later rehired, anyone refusing to obey such orders not only loses his/her job, but also must flee the country to avoid other charges, as was the case with leader of the Senate and member of the president's party who escaped to the US following disagreements with President Taylor”, wrote Tom Kamara of the New Democrat.
In short, we must all take a Sankofa journey to increase our awareness, understanding and sensitivity towards each other. To make this world a better place, we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. By reaching back in the past, we could gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that when we achieve our full potential as we move forward, whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone or stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, improve upon, preserved and perpetuated in the cause of peace, love and understanding among the races.


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ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Mr. Siahyonkron Nyanseor is employed with the Georgia Department of Human Resources - Georgia Regional Hospital at Atlanta - as a Mental Health/Developmentally Disabled (MH/DD) Clinical Team Leader as well as a QMRP (Qualified Mental Retardation Professional). For the past 30 years, Mr. Nyanseor has worked in the field of Mental Health/Mental Retardation as an Instructor, Behavior Specialist and Administrator. Currently, Mr. Nyanseor is the Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), Inc., a non-profit, non-partisan think-tank democratic and research organization. LDF is the publisher of The Perspective web newsmagazine. He is a founding member and Treasurer of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), a nonprofit organization. Also, Mr. Nyanseor is a founding member and the eleventh President (1986-1988) of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, Inc. (ULAA). Mr. Nyanseor can be contacted at: Snyanseor@aol.com
James Mamoo Coleman, MD, is a Liberian physician. Currently, he lives and works in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Prior to relocating to the United States, he worked at the John F. Kennedy Medical Hospital in Monrovia, following his internship at the same hospital. Dr. Coleman had a one-year of rural service at the Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Nimba County. Also, he served for one year as the Medical Director for the Government Hospital in Bong County. He is a former assistant Professor of Dermatology at the A.M. Dogliotte College of Medicine of the University of Liberia, and a consultant of Dermatology at the John F. Kennedy Medical Hospital, Monrovia, Liberia. Dr. Coleman can be contacted at: kula35@walmartconnect.com

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