Area Immigrants With Wounds That Won't Heal

"The grown-ups held me down," says Eliza, who was sexually mutilated when she was a girl in keeping with tradition in her native Senegal. Eliza is seeking safe haven for herself and her daughters in the United States.
"The grown-ups held me down," says Eliza, who was sexually mutilated when she was a girl in keeping with tradition in her native Senegal. Eliza is seeking safe haven for herself and her daughters in the United States. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

The women's stories all begin with a searing childhood memory they cannot describe without weeping.

The stories stretch back to villages in North and West Africa, where tribal traditions include various rites to protect family honor. For generations, mothers there have passed on the practice of genital circumcision to their daughters, believing it will make them respectable and chaste for marriage.

The stories leap to present-day America, where foreign-born victims of forced circumcision have been allowed to apply for political asylum since a landmark immigration ruling in 1996, but where, in the past year, some immigration courts have been trying to narrow the grounds on which they can receive legal sanctuary.

Only a few hundred women have sought or won such asylum claims. A handful live quietly in the Washington area, working in hospitals and offices and beauty salons. All carry deep physical and mental wounds. Five agreed to be interviewed, but none was willing to be identified. No one at their jobs or in their neighborhoods knows their secret. In court documents, they are referred to as "A-T" or "H-M." Yet they live in fear that a distant, smothering culture can reach out and harm them again.

"I was 7. They put a large fabric on the floor. There were about 50 other girls there, too. The people danced and beat drums. The grown-ups held me down. My mother was screaming, but they beat her and held her away. Then they cut me and I was bleeding. It hurt and I was crying and bleeding and crawling. I crawled for a whole week."

That is Eliza speaking. She is poised and articulate, but tears well up as she describes the childhood ordeal in her native Senegal, then her escape to the West and a harrowing visit home when the clan tried to force her to marry an elderly cleric, shaved her head and fed her charcoal as punishment when she refused.

Now living in the United States as a tourist with a long-expired visa, Eliza is awaiting her asylum hearing and could be deported. Divorced, she lives with her mother and has two small daughters who are U.S. citizens. If her case is denied, she says, she will have to choose between leaving the daughters behind or taking them home to face near-certain circumcision.

Today, despite world condemnation, legal bans in many nations and years of educational efforts, female circumcision is still widely practiced in Africa. In nine countries -- Egypt, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Gambia and Djibouti -- more than 75 percent of women have been circumcised.

During the brief procedure, known in the West as female genital mutilation, part or all of the external genitals are cut off. The subjects are usually pre-pubescent. In many cases, health organizations report, they suffer lifelong problems with urination, menstruation, childbirth and sexual relations. The practice cuts across religions, classes and borders, but is far more prevalent in rural areas than cities.

Senegal has made significant strides to reduce the practice, with about 28 percent of women undergoing circumcision. Women's groups there said more than 2,000 villages have abandoned it in the past 20 years after a process of community education and discussion. But they also said cultural pressure can outweigh laws against genital mutilation, and that its practitioners are motivated by a sincere desire to see girls become proper wives and mothers.

"It has been going on for 2,000 years, and it is deeply engrained social norm. If a girl is not cut, she will not get a good husband," said Molly Melching, an American who heads a women's advocacy organization in Senegal. "If you live in certain villages, everyone tells you this is the way to become respectable. If you stand up and object, you are ostracized," she added in a telephone interview. "Women do not do this to harm their daughters. They do it to help them succeed. They do it out of love."

Eliza comes from a family in which three generations of women -- her grandmother, her mother and herself -- represent a difficult evolution from ardent belief in the practice to confused resistance and finally adamant rejection of genital cutting.

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