Trinidad Surgeon Helps Women Escape Past of Mutilation

آذار 23 2010, تصنيف: International NEWS

Bowers hugs Meite on Monday before Meite's reconstructive surgery. Bowers donates her skills and has an agreement with Trinidad's Mount San Rafael Hospital to use its facilities for $1,500 per patient.

Dr. Marci Bowers slipped into a chair in Exam Room 3, folded one long leg over another, looked at her patient — a young woman with wide eyes and a nervous smile — and got to the point.

"We want to help make your life better," Bowers said.

Mariama is as tiny as the 5-foot-10-inch Bowers is formidable, as soft-spoken as Bowers is confident. Mariama speaks softly and smiles easily, but a few hours with her make clear that her determination is as strong as it is quiet.

She is 26 and lives with her husband and daughter in Virginia, and didn't want her last name used. Originally, she is from Guinea, a country about the size of Oregon on Africa's western coast. Guinea has about 10 million residents, and about
96 percent of the women there have, like Mariama, been genitally mutilated.

Mariama and the six other women, all originally from Africa, crowding Dr. Bowers' tiny Trinidad clinic have traveled a long way to get that fixed. The women have come to this former coal-mining town in southern Colorado looking for more than just reconstructive surgery. They want relief from pain. They are looking for a chance, as one put it, to be normal.

Kady Meite from the Ivory Coast in Trinidad, Colorado. (Korene Gallegos)

"I want to be like everyone else," said Kady Meite, the only one of the women who agreed to have her full name used. "Now, I feel nothing. I feel pain" during sex, she said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100 million to 140 million women worldwide, but especially in northern and central Africa, have endured female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Usually done to girls before age 15, the practice involves at least slicing off part or all of the exposed clitoris. In some cultures, the cutting is more extensive, and disfiguring. It's done occasionally by health care practitioners but most often by an older female relative.

A lot of people inflict the damage. Bowers, whose clinic is known around the world as a destination for those seeking gender-changing surgery, is one of a few trained to surgically restore the clitoris, as well as repair other damage.

Since 2003 when she took over the work of Trinidad's pioneering sex-change surgeon, Dr. Stanley Biber, Bowers' practice has exploded to more than 200 of the surgeries a year, and there is a waiting list of patients. Bowers certainly didn't need more to do.

Nevertheless, she went to France a little over a year ago to learn a reconstructive technique developed by Dr. Pierre Foldes, which essentially cuts away scar tissue and surrounding skin to expose whatever is left of the clitoris.

In many cases the procedure also requires more extensive reconstruction.

The women gathered in her office last week are the second group Bowers has performed the reparative surgery for; both times she has donated her services.

Kady Meite, 43, originally from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, speaks with Dr. Marci Bowers before going through a female genital mutilation reversal surgery in Trinidad.

Because the procedure is new and rare, insurance seldom covers it. But Trinidad's Mount San Rafael Hospital has agreed to a flat rate of $1,500 per patient for use of one of its two operating rooms.

Like most of the women in Bowers' clinic, Meite had no idea repair was possible until she learned about Bowers on the Internet. "I said, 'Oh, my God. I don't believe it.' "

Meite is 43. She has been married 22 years and has four children. She would like, after all this time, for sex with her husband, Mustapha, not to hurt.

Betrayal of trust

As Bowers made her way from exam room to exam room Monday, a theme began to emerge as each patient recounted her story: A young girl would visit some trusted female relative in a different town or a distant village. One day during that visit, she would be taken somewhere. Someone would hold her down, and a knife would appear.

"We went on a vacation to visit my aunt," Mariama said, describing her experience. "Then one day, she took me and her granddaughter — my cousin — to a different village. It was like there was going to be a party or a big ceremony. They were cooking food."

Mariama remembers being taken outside into the bush, where "a lady had a small knife." They forced her to the dirt. "I think they didn't want to get blood on a blanket."

She remembers being sliced three times. "The knife was not sharp enough. It hurt so much, I thought I was dying. I screamed so loud one lady physically was sitting on my face" to muffle the screams.

It took two months for the pain and bleeding to stop. In the meantime, the wound became infected, and Mariama got sick with a fever.

She was 8 years old.

When Mariama asked her mother why this happened, her mother explained that it was their culture.

The custom is most closely associated with Islam. Newsweek has reported that Dr. Foldes has received death threats as a result of his surgeries. Still, the women who have come to Trinidad don't believe they are doing anything contrary to the Muslim faith.

"There is nothing written in the Koran saying you need to do that," Meite said.

Growing up in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, Mariama and Meite watched girls who were not cut be ostracized, whispered about, called "unclean."

It wasn't until she came to the United States, as the bride of a Guinea-born chemist, that she learned that in many places what happened to her was not acceptable, or even legal.

The first time she was examined by a doctor in the U.S. — who had never heard of FGM — "his face was like he had seen a ghost," Mariama said.

When she gave birth to their daughter, it had to be by cesarean section; nurses couldn't even insert a catheter, she said.

Her daughter, now 5, has never been to Guinea, and she never will, Mariama said.

"I refuse to go back. I won't let them near my daughter."

A path toward healing

After they met with Bowers and filled out paperwork at the hospital, the women went to their rooms at the Morning After Guest House.

Typically, the Morning After is a haven for those who have come to Trinidad for sex-change surgery. But this week, it had been reserved for the women.

The night before the surgeries, that guest house was a bustling, noisy place. The television on, the radio was blaring, exotic smells wafted from the kitchen as owner Carol Cometto threw a dinner for them.

The women come as a group for pragmatic reasons — Bowers blocks out time for surgery, the guest house is reserved.

But there is another less tangible benefit to the mass scheduling. As the evening proceeded, the women got acquainted, and for many, it was the first time they met others who faced the same traumas and made the same decision to seek healing.

Eventually, a woman in a plaid schoolgirl miniskirt, fishnet stockings, boots and a fur-trimmed white jacket walked in, carrying a large box of vibrators.

"Tonight I get to play Santa Claus," Nadine Gary said.

Gary is with the organization Clitoraid, which she describes as working toward twin goals of "ending FGM worldwide and to help as many victims as possible through surgery."

To fully help them, Gary believes, means more than just ending the women's pain. It also means beginning their pleasure.

Female genitalia is "just like any part of body that has been cut," Gary said. "You need physical therapy so it starts to work again. The nerve paths need to be reactivated so they reach the brain."

If that notion was a bit much for a group of women whose childhood lessons taught that sex may be enjoyable for men but a source of pain for women, they didn't say anything.

Early Tuesday morning, while darkness still clung to Trinidad, a car pulled up outside the guest house, for the first of four trips that day to the hillside hospital.

The surgeries took little more than an hour each, and by 3 p.m. four women were back at the guest house, sore and resting.

Wednesday, the process was repeated with the remaining three.

Bowers had prepared them for some post-op pain, but that didn't deter them.

Meite, who said she has converted to Christianity, believes "God has a purpose for everything." Now, she said, she has found the answer to why this happened to her.

"Now, I have found someone who can help me, and so I can help a lot of other women."

Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or -بريد إلكتروني-

Uganda bans female circumcision

كانون الأول 15 2009, تصنيف: International NEWS
(CNN) -- The Ugandan parliament unanimously passed a bill banning female genital mutilation, a traditional rite that has sparked an international outcry and is practiced in some African and Asian communities.

The practice, which involves cutting off a girl's clitoris, is also called female circumcision. In some communities in eastern Uganda, it is practiced in girls up to age 15.

Convicted offenders face 10 years in prison, but if the girl dies during the act, those involved will get a life sentence, according to officials in the east African country.

"A majority of Ugandans felt it is a disgusting act, but you have to remember that this is a cultural belief that has been practiced for generations," said Fred Opolot, the government spokesman. "That's what took the bill so long to pass."

Human rights activists have decried the practice, which they say poses major health risks for girls and may lead to death. It also causes complications during sex and child birth, activists say.

"The experience has also been related to a range of psychological and psychosomatic disorders," the United Nations Population Fund says.

About three million women and girls face female genital mutilation globally every year, and nearly 140 million have already undergone the practice, according to the United Nations.

Most of the victims live in Africa and Asia, including among some populations in India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Alice Alaso, a member of parliament in Uganda, said the bill was only a first step.

"We might later amend it to include compensations for women subjected to the practice," Alaso said. "Our goal is to protect these girls, and we will continue to do so."

Female genital mutilation has been banned in some African countries, but it is still practiced in some remote, close-knit communities.

Some communities are also shifting toward a less invasive procedure called the 'lesser cut," according to the United Nations.

"This may be indicative of shifts in awareness .... however, it is still an unacceptable practice," it added.

Source: CNN

Africa Rising, New Documentary Movie on FGM

تشرين الثاني 05 2009, تصنيف: International NEWS
“This is a powerful look at how to eliminate, from within cultures themselves, a tragic practice. This procedure is perpetrated on young girls, the most vulnerable members of society.”
Meryl Streep

“An inspiring and hopeful film. Despite the deep sadness I felt for these girls, the good news is that the grassroots movement is strong and leading the global fight against Female Genital Mutilation to save each and every girl.”
Edwidge Danticat

Africa Rising is a powerful documentary portraying the indomitable grassroots movement to end female genital mutilation. Traveling through remote villages in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Somalia and Tanzania, Africa Rising celebrates the resilience and determination of the human spirit to change destiny against all odds.

From the Horn of Africa to the Western shores of the sub-Saharan nations, everyday 6,000 girls are subjected to a practice called female genital mutilation or FGM. And everyday with little more than fierce determination and deep love for their communities, brave activists are leading the path against all odds to break the silence about this centuries-old tradition. Together, these women and men have created a formidable grassroots movement to end FGM. Africa Rising is an extraordinary film presenting an insightful look at the frontlines of a quiet revolution taking the African continent by storm.

Masterfully directed by Paula Heredia, Africa Rising paints an intimate portrait of courageous individuals with dignity and strength, whose passion for justice is changing the course of history. The film celebrates girls like Beatrice and Edna Kandie, sisters who fled their home after learning their father was planning to cut them, and succeeded in getting a court order of protection against him; the film also features the moving story of Fanta Camara from Mali, who despite years of suffering from injuries as a result of FGM, blossoms into a bright young woman. Other girls, however, have faced ultimate tragedy, such as Tato a teenaged anti-FGM activist who lost her life to FGM.

Covering rural stories from across the continent, Africa Rising will leave the viewer cheering for these unlikely heroes who share their conviction that ending female genital mutilation is within our reach and visible on the horizon.

FOR MORE SEE our links page...

Newsweek Web Exclusive "The Kindest Cut"

تشرين الأول 21 2009, تصنيف: International NEWS

The Kindest Cut

In Colorado, a surgeon helps restore feeling—and so much more—to victims of female genital mutilation.
photos of "sila" (psuedonym) before, during and after treatment to reverse female genital mutilation - Dr. Marci Bowers performed surgery in Trinidad, Colo. in May 2009

Photos: Kristen Ashburn / Contact for Newsweek
Sila, a patient at Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad Colorado, prepares for her clitoroplastal reversal surgery (left). The surgery, (center) performed by Dr. Marci Bowers, reverses the effect of female genital mutilation and attempts to rebuild the clitoris, eliminate pain and restore pleasure. After the surgery, (right) Sila and Dr. Bowers embrace.

By Eve Conant | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Oct 20, 2009

One day, when Sila Folow was an 8-year-old girl living in Mali, four elderly women held her down on the dirt floor of an outhouse and, in keeping with local tradition, used a sharp blade to cut out her clitoris and most of her labia. Her grandmother and other villagers held a celebration. Sila, bleeding and in terrible pain, could not walk for weeks. Like millions of other African girls who are forced to undergo female genital mutilation—a ritual many women say is intended to ensure that they grow up to become sexually passive wives who will not stray from their husbands—Sila never recovered. She eventually moved to New York, married, and had two children. But she was reluctant to have sex with her husband. It hurt, and the scarring made it impossible for her to feel pleasure.

This May, Sila, now 38 years old, underwent a simple but profound operation to undo the past. She traveled to Trinidad, Colorado, where Dr. Marci Bowers, a gynecological and pelvic surgeon, has recently begun to perform "clitoralplasty" or "female circumcision reversals" on African women. A relatively new procedure, it reshapes the anatomy and, in 80 percent of patients, restores pleasurable sensation. "I want my womanhood back," Sila told Bowers when she first spoke to the surgeon about the operation. "I just want to know it's there. To have the feeling that I can fight against this culture."

As she awaited the anesthesiologist on the morning of the surgery, Sila—attractive, fun-loving, and talkative—was uncharacteristically quiet in her thin blue gown and hospital socks. She took a final phone call from her husband and mother, and set aside the romance novel she had brought to the hospital as a little joke. It was titled Good Girl Gone Bad.

The doctors wheeled her to the operating room, anesthetized her and got to work. Dr. Bowers cut away the thick scar tissue that had formed over Sila's wound and had obscured the remains of her clitoris. She then scraped away layers of a black, sooty material—the decades-old remnants of the ash poultice the local women had used to stop the bleeding. It had caused a low-grade infection that still hadn't healed—one reason Sila was always in pain. "They really got her good," Bowers said, shaking her head behind her surgical mask. Bowers used a cauterizing tool to quickly stop a sudden rush of blood. "That's arterial blood flowing there," she said. "You can see why so many girls have died after circumcisions." The root of the clitoris, which extends several centimeters beneath the surface of a woman's skin,is much larger than most people—and for many years scientists—ever suspected. Bowers exposed the remaining flesh of the organ and drew it out, securing it in place with delicate stitches that eventually dissolve. Finally, Bowers also did some cosmetic work to restore the appearance of Sila's labia.

A little less than an hour after it began, the surgery was complete. Two days after that, Sila was on her way home. In most cases, it takes three to six months to begin to tell if the operation was a success. However, the extent of Sila's injury was so severe—her reconstruction took twice as long as the average 30 minutes due to the level of scarring and the depth of the cut—it may take longer before she knows if the surgery worked. Still, "You should be able to feel something; there was two centimeters of scar tissue over the area," Bowers told Sila right after the operation.

"Just knowing it's out and I'm clean, I feel great," Sila said, still groggy from the anesthesia. She says she looks forward to the day when she can "have a romance with my husband."

Sila's operation was only the fourth time Dr. Bowers had done the procedure, but she has more than twenty years of experience in reconstructive surgery. Bowers learned the procedure in Europe by observing Dr. Pierre Foldes, a French urologist and surgeon who pioneered the technique after years of humanitarian work in Africa. He has received death threats from radical Islamists for his work as a surgeon and for his other efforts to reduce violence against women, he says. But he continues to train doctors and to perform the surgery. Foldes—reached by telephone outside Paris—tells NEWSWEEK that more than 3,000 women have come to him, largely because in France, , genital reconstruction surgery is covered by national health insurance. (In the United States insurance companies are still mostly unfamiliar with the surgery—only one of Bowers's patients has so far gotten full medical coverage for the procedure; others are still fighting with their insurance companies or have paid out of their own pockets.. Bowers performs the surgery free of charge, and the hospital caps its fees at $1,700. "As Dr. Foldes has said, you cannot charge money to reverse a crime against humanity," she says. "Sexuality is a right."

Bowers speaks from personal experience. She was born male and underwent "gender reassignment" surgery to become a woman 11 years ago. She now specializes in sex-change operations; she has performed some 700 of them, and is one of the leading gender-reassignment specialists in the U.S. The small Colorado town where her clinic is located has long been known as the sex-change capital of the world thanks to work of Dr. Stanley Biber , a pioneering surgeon in the 70s whose practice she took over. Asked if she is worried about the death threats that have followed Foldes, Bowers doesn't flinch. "I've jumped through enough fires and over enough barbed-wire fences in my life by now. I do not fear for my safety."

Bowers expects that the restoration technique she performed on Sila "will explode" in popularity as word gets out to the thousands of other circumcised African women who live in the United States. (Female genital mutilation is practiced in both Christian and Muslim communities and has been performed on some 100 to 130 million women worldwide, and some of those women may have been mutilated here in the U.S.). Since Sila, Bowers has performed four additional surgeries with two more scheduled for this month A California nurse, Ngozi, who was circumcised as a newborn in Nigeria and also had her labia entirely cut away, came to Bowers in August. She is already feeling results, she tells NEWSWEEK. "Before, I would look at my textbook and look at myself and they were two different things. I wasn't even human." Bowers performed not only the clitoral operation but also plastic surgery to create labia for Ngozi, 34. "Now when I look at myself I feel like a woman." Says Ngozi, who says she has even experienced orgasms for the first time in her life. "It's beautiful, I just love it, it feels like you're melting. Before it irritated me when my husband tried to touch me, now I reach out to him."

But here and even in Europe, many women fear being ostracized by their immigrant communities if they undergo the operation. Sila, whom NEWSWEEK followed before, during and after her operation, has the same concerns. She asked that her full name not be used for this article—Sila is her nickname—because she worries friends and family in America and Africa will once again treat her as an outcast. Sila knows about the stigma uncircumcised girls suffer in some African communities. Her mother, who was 14 when she gave birth to her, was vehemently opposed to female circumcision and for years refused to subject Sila to the procedure. In Mali, where nine out of 10 girls are forced to undergo the ritual, Sila stood out. Her cousins and friends had all been circumcised, many as infants. They teased her for being unclean and wouldn't let her eat at the same table with them. When Sila was 8, her mother moved to the United States, leaving her grandmother to raise her. The grandmother soon arranged for Sila to be made "normal." But the women who performed the circumcision the first time weren't satisfied with their work. Three weeks later, they held her down and cut her again. (In one way, Sila says, she was lucky. Some African girls are subjected to an even more extreme and dangerous ritual called an infibulation, which involves sewing up the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.)

In 1989, when Sila was a teenager, her mother invited her to come live with her in the United States. She went to high school and college, and became a U.S. citizen. Dating was awkward. When she'd meet a young man, says Sila, "I'd think, he's cute, but if he knows he will run away. I would go out with them but when it came time for bed I'd say, 'Bye!' " She married an African man at age 20. Her husband was understanding. "He had lived in the U.S. a long time," she says. "He thinks the circumcisions are wrong." But her avoidance of intimacy strained their relationship. An avid reader, Sila devoured American romance novels with a tinge of jealousy and confusion, "I'd think, I wish I had that."

Last year she was reading a book with a character who'd had a sex change and wondered if she could change herself too—not into a man, but into a "real" woman. If a man can be made to feel like a woman, she thought, maybe they could fix me?

She surfed the Internet and discovered Foldes. She arranged an appointment, but the cost of the trip was high and French health care wouldn't cover an American patient. She found a small nonprofit organization on the web called Clitoraid, which had helped to fund Dr. Bowers's training in France. The organization has unusual backers: it is run primarily by volunteers of the provocative French Raelian movement—the pleasure-promoting "UFO religion" whose members believe life on Earth was created by a race of advanced aliens and who emphasize human sexuality. Clitoraid, however, reaches out to women of all religions and focuses solely on connecting women with trained surgeons in order to "create real, long-lasting changes for women who have been forced to experience clitoral excision or genital mutilation against their will" according to its mission statement. It has been the primary source of referrals to Dr. Bowers and has provided some financial aid to some of her patients, In late May, Sila flew to Colorado for the surgery. Like many of Bowers's patients, she stayed at a guesthouse for people awaiting sex-change operations. She was charged just $35 per night, less than half the usual rate.

Sila had spoken with two of Bowers's first three patients. Mariam—she agreed to give only her first name—was circumcised as an infant in Mauritania and now lives in Virginia. She spoke with NEWSWEEK seven weeks after her surgery and was still healing, but had begun to recover some sensation. "When I cross my legs or sit in a certain way, I feel something," she says. "It's kind of exciting. You keep wanting to do it." She is still haggling to have her hospital stay covered by insurance. "I've gone through this hell, why are they going to say this is cosmetic?" she says. "They don't even know what they're talking about. If a person is missing something, it's not cosmetic."

After the surgery, Sila showed anger for the first time at the women who cut her as a child. "They were so mean, so mean to me," she said as she rested on the couch in the guesthouse. "I want to go back and"—she made a shooting motion—"t-t-t with a gun." But she quickly reverted to her cheerful self. "Even if I feel something just one time, it will all be worth it." She knows she'll be criticized by fellow immigrants who may read this story, but hopes that eventually those who practice female circumcision will come to recognize it for what it is—a primitive and barbaric act. "They'll call me an infidel now, but later they will say it is a good thing," she says.

The night before her operation Sila could barely sit still, much less sleep. It was, she wrote in her journal, her last night "as an incomplete woman." At one point, she took a call from her mother. In African culture, says Sila, "usually you don't talk about things like this with your mother." But when she told her mother that she was going to have the operation, her mom was envious. "Oh, I'm too old to do it," she told her daughter. That was how Sila learned that her mother, too, had been circumcised. And now her mom hopes to be one of Dr. Bowers's next patients.

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