Survivor and activist fighting to end Female Genital Mutilation, Marie-Claire Kakpotia, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below her prepared remarks.
When I was nine years old, I was on vacation with my father’s family in Côte d’Ivoire when my aunt told me we’d been invited to a party. I was happy to go, but when we got inside, it looked nothing like I’d expected. They put me in a line of young girls, some just three years old. One by one, they were invited inside, and a few minutes later, they came out hysterically crying. What was happening?? The other girls didn’t know either.
Finally, it was my turn. I walked inside, and four women seized me immediately. They slammed me to the ground, yanked off my pants and my underwear, took out a knife, and cut deep into my vagina. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life. I couldn’t stop crying. Tears streamed down my face. Blood flowed from me.
At the time, I didn’t know what “Female Genital Mutilation” was. I didn’t know that the part of me they’d cut out was my clitoris or how that would impact my life as a mature woman.
My mutilation was followed by silence. I didn’t dare tell my mom. Months later, my grandmother told her – she was confident and happy that I’d been mutilated. I was a “good girl,” and getting mutilated meant I’d stay a “good girl.” That I’d find a good husband and get married. My mom was devastated. But it was too late.
Today, I live in France, and I run an organization called Les Orchidées Rouges for survivors of Female Genital Mutilation like me. And the one thing I hear again and again is – “Oh, that’s just an African problem. An outdated tribal practice. That doesn’t happen here in Europe.” But I’m here to tell you – that you’re wrong.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a problem worldwide. 200 million women & girls around the world have received Female Genital Mutilation. In Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India. In African countries like Ethiopia, Senegal, Somalia, Guinea, and Djibouti. In Arab states like Iraq, Yemen, and Oman. In Russia. And in diaspora communities worldwide. So if you think your country isn’t affected by FGM, you’re wrong.
In France, where I live, FGM is illegal, and anyone caught performing the procedure faces ten years imprisonment and a 150,000 euro fine. But it doesn’t matter that it’s illegal, because the practice happens behind closed doors, in secret, often on holiday. I’ve met countless European women whose parents took them abroad to visit relatives, and like me, they returned home, traumatized, with blood-soaked underwear.
You might hear the practice called “female circumcision,” but don’t be deceived. FGM is not the equivalent of cutting off the foreskin, it would be as if we cut off a man’s entire penis. In fact, some girls aren’t just mutilated. They’re sewn shut. And then it’s their husband’s duty to cut them open again when they’re married.
It’s a brutal, evil form of torture. And it has long-lasting consequences into adulthood.
When I was 22 years old, I met a man from Italy, and we decided to have sex. But as soon as he saw me naked, he stopped me. “Where is your clitoris?” he said. “You are not a real woman if you don’t have a clitoris.” He couldn’t get over it. And I couldn’t get over that feeling of being half a woman. Of being inferior, undesirable, and broken. It haunted me for years.
Then, in 2016 I read a story in a magazine about a girl like me who’d undergone surgery to repair her clitoris. On December 7, 2016, I had genital reconstructive surgery. I call that day my second birthday because when I woke up from the anesthesia, I was a different woman, smiling and serene. It was the beginning of a long process of healing – both physically and mentally.
Three months later, I founded Les Orchidées Rouges to fight for the eradication of FGM, forced and early marriage, and other types of gender-based violence. Since 2020, we’ve offered free therapy, treatment, and support to 650 survivors of FGM at our institutes in France & Côte d’Ivoire. By reconstructing themselves physically, psychologically, and sexually, survivors gain the self-confidence to follow their personal and professional dreams. And the same is true for me! Today, I’m with a loving man, I’m the mom to an incredible son, and I’ve never been more confident in myself and my body.
Through my organization, I’ve met hundreds of survivors, their families, and even cutters. And I’ve realized that the most important thing YOU can do right now is to spread awareness about the horrors of FGM. Tell people that this is not just a West African problem. That there are 500,000 survivors in Europe alone. That every minute, 6 little girls are mutilated. And that it might be a long-standing cultural practice, but we cannot stand for it any longer. People say, “It’s been done since the time of the Pharaohs; who are we to say that our ancestors were wrong?” I say our ancestors were human, just like us. We can honour our ancestors and choose a more humane path for ourselves, our families, and our children.
No woman or child deserves to go through what I went through. Female Genital Mutilation must end now.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023