All Woman

Surgery offers hope for victims of female genital mutilation

Monday, July 09, 2012    

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FATIMA Sheriff has a sketchy recollection of the day her mother pinned down her four-year-old body while a stranger slashed at her genitals.

"I remember I was fighting," the 32-year-old told AFP, pointing to her back where she bears a scar from flailing about on the stony ground on which she was mutilated.

"I remember my mum was the one who held me," she said, recounting that her assailants had wielded a razor blade.

"If somebody did that to me today I would kill them," she said simply.

Sheriff was living in the west African state of Sierra Leone when the nightmare took place.

She is one of about 140 million women worldwide to have been subjected to genital mutilation — a practice in which a young girl's clitoris and labia are removed, all or in part, in the belief that this will reduce libido and keep a woman chaste.

The cost to this beautiful young woman was years of shame and pleasureless sex, feelings of victimisation and inadequacy, and jealousy of women with intact genitals.

But 18 months ago, Sheriff's life changed when she underwent reconstructive surgery that included rebuilding her clitoris.

Following weeks of painful recovery, she was rewarded with her first orgasm.

"I went: 'Wow, that's me! I can do this!'" said the mother of two girls, recalling the event with tears in her eyes.

Sheriff, an aesthetician training as an English teacher, was a patient of Pierre Foldes, a surgeon at Poissy-Saint Germain Hospital northwest of Paris.

He is one of fewer than 10 doctors trained to do the procedure in France — where the operation has been covered by national health insurance since 2004.

Foldes' 2,938 patients between 1998 and 2009 were mainly from Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast, though 560 had been mutilated in France. Most were between the ages of five and nine when it happened.

In a paper published in The Lancet medical journal last Tuesday, Foldes and colleagues report on the success of the procedure based on a follow-up of 866 patients.

In the first comprehensive assessment of the surgery's long-term benefits to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the authors report that more than a third of the women who had never experienced an orgasm before the corrective procedure started to have them afterward.

With support from a sex therapist, half who had "restricted" orgasms were now climaxing regularly.

"Clitoral reconstruction after female genital mutilation is feasible," the authors conclude.

"It can certainly improve women's pleasure and lessen their pain. It also allows mutilated women to recover their identity."

According to the World Health Organisation, about three million girls a year fall victim to genital mutilation.

It is commonest in western, eastern, and northeastern regions of Africa and the Middle East and among communities of migrants from these areas now living in Europe and North America.

Reviled and outlawed internationally, the practice not only wreaks emotional havoc.

It can cause health problems ranging from urinary difficulties, cysts and infection to infertility and complications in childbirth.

Sheriff said the surgery had given her a new self-confidence that resonates beyond her sex life.

She only recently started talking about her experience, and plans to launch a blog titled "My Clitoris and Me" to help women who have been through the same ordeal and encourage them to have the surgery.

"It is the best thing I ever did," she said. "For the first time, I am living my life. I feel like I can conquer the world."

But she is one of the lucky ones.

"In most developed and all developing countries, reconstructive surgery is prohibitively expensive," the paper says.

— AFP

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