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The nightmare of female circumcision

05 August 2014 / 14:08:56  GRReporter
6614 reads

Anastasia Balezdrova

Two weeks ago, the Administrative Court of Appeal in Athens blocked the extradition of a woman from Kenya because of the risk of her undergoing female circumcision upon returning to her home country. This legal precedent was adopted with positive comments on the part of Greek and European society, provoking a lot of discussions about the cruel tradition that cripples millions of women each year.

The court’s decision coincided with the announcement of a part of the programme of the 20th jubilee edition of the "Premiere Nights" International Film Festival in Athens in September, which will present two documentaries by Greek artists dedicated to female circumcision.  

One of the films is "Excision" by young director Vicki Vellopoulou who presents in it the cruel ritual, its heavy consequences on the bodies and souls of the girls and women, and its deep roots in the culture of Kenyans.

The film was shot during the winter of 2013 and is a production of Indigo View Productions film production company and the ActionAid Hellas humanitarian organisation. Director Vicki Vellopoulou talks to Anastasia Balezdrova.

How was the idea for this documentary born? What drew your interest?

The idea came from a group of volunteers from the ActionAid humanitarian organisation who had previously visited Kenya and, through establishing contact with the local community, they had found out the existence of the custom of female circumcision among some tribes. They were visibly shocked when they returned to Greece and we began our first conversations with ActionAid on what we could do. I remember I reacted immediately when I heard about it for the first time and told my producer Dimitris Xenakis, "We are leaving right away". Of course this was not possible. We needed good preparation at all levels, we had to research the matter and read about it...

The first question that automatically pops up in our minds when we learn about this custom is, "But why?" And immediately afterwards, "What consequences will this choice have on their lives?"

How did you contact the tribes that apply female circumcision? How difficult or easy was it to make the girls and women talk to you about it?

A method of contact? We found ourselves among the Pokot tribe. It is one of the "wildest" tribes due to its geographical isolation from the rest. It has nothing in common with the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes that have contact with tourism and increasing access to education... However, the members of the Pokot tribe are very direct and frank in terms of contact, without even a trace of pretence. Precisely because they live in isolation on a plateau and the majority of them have no electricity they have no access to media, television, etc., they have no sense of the picture in all its forms (their image, the public presentation of a photo, the dissemination of their words, appearance, etc.). Therefore, all the codes of filming acted quite differently, I would say they were not "burdensome". We turned on the cameras to record and they immediately ignored their presence in the room. It was all the same for them whether there was a camera or table in front of them. They talked to us as they would talk to each other or to a lady-friend. And even when they saw a picture of them on the camera screen, they could not imagine what would happen, namely, how far it would go, who and how many people would see it, etc.  

The girls talked about circumcision with the same comfort and pride with which a girl from the West talks about her wedding and the christening of her children. For them, circumcision is a sign of great pride they themselves require it from their fathers. Of course, there are exceptions and these are mostly girls who attend school and choose not to undergo circumcision.

As a woman, how did you feel when they described the procedure and especially when you filmed it?

It happened gradually because I had conducted a piece of research in Athens, long before leaving for Kenya. I remember that every additional piece of information shocked me even more, for example, 140 million women worldwide have been circumcised, and 6,000 undergo amputation every day.

When we saw how exactly the procedure is done we all got sick, both men and women. I cannot put it into words, because it shook all levels of my existence, my mind, emotions, consciousness and body (nausea, vomiting, tension in every muscle...). It took me a long time to recover. At this point, you just clench your teeth because you cannot interrupt the procedure nor can you leave. Then you simply let your whole body collapse.

How do women in Africa perceive this cruel tradition?

They are very proud of it. Circumcision is an ordeal that they must overcome in order for society to accept them as grown-up and responsible women. They must experience this pain to be accepted by society and be considered strong enough by its members.

What are the consequences of circumcision on their lives?

They are many and unfortunately fatal in the majority of the cases. We describe precisely them in most of the film. Those of the women who do not die from haemorrhage during the ritual have sexual dysfunction, complications during the first birth, and the mortality rate is very high in both mothers and babies.

Footage of the school in the film trailer shows a teacher explaining to the girls that they can choose whether to undergo circumcision or not. Does this choice exist in practice?

Yes, they can choose. Some to a greater extent, others to a lesser, but they can choose. Those girls who decide to attend school have significant chances to refuse to undergo circumcision because there they become aware of the consequences of circumcision on their health, safety and the right of choice. In addition, some girls run away from home to avoid it.

During the filming at the school in Churo village the door opened and two girls aged 12 and 13, who had just fled their homes, entered the room. They had found out that their families were preparing their marriages and this means that they would have to undergo circumcision before that. Therefore, they had decided to escape. They had walked 15 km in the savannah alone, taking the risk of being attacked by wild animals such as lions for instance. When they arrived at the school they wanted to be admitted to the boarding-house. How courageous must a 12-year-old girl be to do all this?

Based on this experience, how can this practice be permanently stopped in your opinion?

With training at schools, education ... and social campaigns on the part of the governments of the countries that practise it.

It can be stopped by opening the minds of people, by interrupting the beliefs that hinder their development. I mean of both women and men, because in order for them to live in harmony they have to break with all beliefs and to understand all the consequences of this tradition on a family. Otherwise we will take one step forward and two steps back and we will not be able to talk about progress.

All suffer from the health problems of Chemoyo, in the first place her herself and her siblings, her husband and children...

Why did you make this film? What was your goal?

To make the public aware of female circumcision, to engage it and alert t about some beliefs of people, their origin, the role they play in our lives, whether we filter them and how, which ones we preserve, which ones hinder our development and would be better rejected, wherever we live on planet Earth, in whatever culture we are raised.

We all have beliefs. Thousands, millions of religious, social, family, personal beliefs ...

We did not make the film to condemn the beliefs and customs of people or society, but to understand the conditions that support this "extreme" custom and to show its consequences on people's lives. And through it to understand how some of our beliefs are very outdated and act destructively or hinder the life of each of us, even if they are not as extreme as female circumcision is.

What are your next plans? Are you working on documentaries on social issues or are you interested in other topics?

Each topic or proposal that attracts my attention and interest regardless of the way of expression, including a documentary, advertisement, fiction, broadcast, series or video, may become one of my next works. If it contains this "thing" that frantically induces my heart to tell it.

Tags: SocietyFemale circumcisionKenyaDocumentaryExcisionVicki Vellopoulou
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