Home » ‘I Felt Extreme Anger’: the FGM Survivor Ending Abuse and Giving a Voice to Girls in Senegal
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‘I Felt Extreme Anger’: the FGM Survivor Ending Abuse and Giving a Voice to Girls in Senegal

When Woppa Diallo was 12, her aunt took her to visit a family friend in a village in northern Senegal. As she entered the house, a girl walked past in tears. Diallo was led into a room where there was nothing but a fruit bowl with blades in it.

“When I saw that, I knew this woman wasn’t a friend. She trapped me and held me down. She had already closed the door,” she remembers.

Diallo fought to escape. The woman called for back up, and another woman came in and sat on Diallo’s stomach so she wouldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe and passed out. In the moments that followed, Diallo was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia.

“It was a violation of my privacy, and it was torture,” says Diallo. “The following three years were very difficult for me. I felt extreme anger towards people.”

Diallo harnessed her fury and channelled it into a life of activism. At 15, she founded Amfe, L’Association pour le Maintien des Filles à l’Ecole (the Association for Keeping Girls in School) in Matam, her home town in north-east Senegal. She is also a lawyer specialising in human rights.

Last month, a story she co-authored with her husband, Mame Bougouma Diene, based on her experiences of violence, won the Caine prize for African writing. They are the first pair to win the award since it began in 2000, and the first winners from Senegal.

A Soul of Small Places, published in 2022, is a coming-of-age story told against a backdrop of African cosmology, in which spirits and humans coexist. Diene, a French-Senegalese American humanitarian and writer, worked with Diallo to create a fictional version of herself. He says: “[The fictional Woppa Diallo] becomes a driving force against oppression that young girls are undergoing, with heroic and devastating consequences.”

Diene was inspired to write it after hearing Diallo, 30 – who was not his wife at the time – speak about her work combating gender-based violence in Matam. She told how families keep their little girls at home for fear of them being raped. “I remember that terrifying me,” says Diene. “She was talking about the fallout for victims, the ‘blame the victim’ mentality, the lack of social support, how geography influences incidences of gender violence. That spoke to me.”

According to the UN, almost a third of women in Senegal are married or in a union before they turn 18, and more than one in 10 (12.4%) women aged 15 to 49 reported being subject to some form of violence by a current or former partner in the previous 12 months.

FGM is widespread in Matam, carried out on 60% to 79% of women. Girls as young as eight get married and are expected to stay at home. When a girl has her period, she is considered “impure” and is isolated in a bedroom until she finishes bleeding.skip past newsletter promotion

Many girls don’t attend school, says Diallo, as they live too far away. In 2014, the region had the lowest rate of literacy among girls in the country. “We are reserved to marry and have children,” she says.

Diallo’s activism began after she returned to school one year and noticed many of the girls in her class were absent. She asked why and was told they had got married and didn’t have time to attend school. She went to the principal and asked if she could create an organisation with her friends to support girls. He agreed and gave her some advice on how to get started. Amfe was born.

Its first task was persuading the village chief to provide school accommodation for young girls so that they could stay there during the week and return home at the weekend.

Diallo then started organising events, including one where a successful woman from the Peule community, to which Diallo belongs, spoke to girls and their parents about careers and opportunities.

More recently, she has held community meetings to discuss FGM and to debunk myths around its religious and cultural relevance. In Matam, many people believe that the Qu’ran says girls should be cut. People also believe it has origins in their culture. Diallo did research to disprove this and presented it to her village chief. He ruled that no one should practice FGM within the confines of the village.

Amfe now has more than 250 members, most of whom are in high school and college, and a presence in 14 villages. Diallo is involved in the UN Girl’s Education Initiative, a feminist network working towards gender equality in education.

She believes her grassroots organisation is more powerful at bringing change in Matam than big NGOs who bring echoes of “a return to slavery”. She says of their interventions: “It’s like when the colonisers came to tell us, ‘What you’re doing is wrong; we are here to civilise you.’”

She adds: “My organisation is part of the community. We are all the nieces, granddaughters, daughters of someone. People are obliged to listen.”

Source: The Guardian