Meet Sister Fa, the Senegalese rapper taking on FGM

Sister Fa is an award-winning rapper, mother and survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). But through art and music, this Senegalese girl hero is changing people’s minds about the harmful practice. As we approach the International Day of Zero Tolerance For FGM, Sister Fa talks about her personal experience with FGM and why it has no place in 2016.

I hadn’t even started primary school when I got cut. They told me I was going to visit one of my mother’s sisters. When we arrived there were around 50 girls, all different ages. We were singing, dancing, laughing and having fun because we didn’t know the real reason we were there; we thought it was just a nice evening. 

Then the next day they started taking us one by one. We couldn’t see what was happening to the girls who went before us, but we heard them screaming.

Why do mothers allow it? They want their daughters to be accepted by their community.

What I remember from when it was my turn was the blood at my feet and my mum asking me not to cry. I remember exactly what they did to me, and I remember the pain. It’s a trauma that will follow me my whole life.

Why do mothers allow it? For different reasons. Mainly, they want their daughters to be accepted by their community.

In my village I knew a girl who hadn’t been cut because she had grown up in a different village that didn’t practise it. We even have a bad name for it, “solima,” which means a dirty and impure woman, which we called her. We considered ourselves to be superior to her. When we all hung out together, we wouldn’t let her be part of the conversation or allow her to speak louder than us.

I don’t think any mother would want her daughter to be treated like this by her whole community. And so the practice continues.

Some communities cut girls because they think it’s a religious practice that a woman has to undergo to be clean so she can pray. Other communities believe a girl has to be sown up to keep her a virgin before marriage.

The turning point for me happened when I started secondary school. Two one-year-old girls in my neighbourhood were cut, and afterwards the mothers were told to use bleach to heal the wound. They put bleach in the girls’ nappies, not realising it would burn them. When the babies developed an infection they didn’t take them to hospital until it was too late. Both of them died – one of them on her mother’s back on the way to the hospital. It was the first time I saw a dead body.

I kept asking myself how two girls could die and yet no one would talk about it. Cutting girls with a knife in the most sensitive part of their body – and without anaesthetic – in the name of what?

I couldn’t stand it any more, and I think it was one of the reasons that motivated me as a singer to use my voice to try to get young people to understand that FGM is a violation of their rights.

I believe music starts where language stops.

I called myself Sister Fa because the hip-hop movement in Senegal is so macho, and they don’t have any respect for women. So, it was important to give myself a name like “sister” so people know from the start that it’s a lady rapping this time.

Senegal passed a law in 1999 to forbid it, but communities have to be ready to embrace that.

If young people had been involved in tackling FGM many years ago, then maybe today the practice would belong to the past, like foot binding in China.

The fact that we’re in schools working with the authority of the Minister of Education shows the kids we’re not there to give them a false message. But if you go to the classroom and start talking about vaginas, the kids will feel embarrassed and they won’t respond. So I put it in a very easy context. They like music. They like theatre. They like painting. This is exactly what I’m using to get the young people involved.

When I visit communities, I work with the imam to tackle the belief that FGM is a religious practice. The prophet Muhammad had four girls and none of them were cut. When I tell communities that it isn’t a religious solution, they usually ask me what it is. I really have to argue and explain to them that FGM is a social norm and not a part of Senegalese tradition.

We have seen some very positive results from nearly all the communities we have visited, but unfortunately we do hear from some communities that there is a little group that has decided to cut again.

On a national scale, the Gambia recently banned FGM. Senegal passed a law in 1999 to forbid it, but communities have to be ready to embrace that. You can’t force mothers to protect their own children. A mother has to know that what she thinks is good for her daughter actually really hurts her. We need legislation alongside community-level campaigns to get people to understand why they shouldn’t cut their daughters.

It’s our responsibility to change things, so this doesn’t happen to the next generation. No one should say: “I’m not concerned, it’s not my place, it’s not my culture.” Everyone can do something. We can do it and we’re going to do it. In the future, we are going to talk about FGM as some painful practice that happened in the past.