Burkina Faso’s `pleasure hospital’ offers women sexual hope

May 21st, 2009 - 9:40 am ICT by IANS  

By Kate Thomas
Bobo-Dioulasso (Burkina Faso), May 21 (DPA) In the dusty town of Bobo-Dioulasso in western Burkina Faso, young women in brightly-coloured dresses watch construction workers mix cement in the afternoon sun. As the workmen haul bricks across the building site, the women whisper excitedly.

They are standing on the site of Africa’s first specialist genital reconstruction clinic. When the facility - dubbed “the pleasure hospital” - opens later this year, it will offer free clitoral reconstruction surgery to victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) from across West Africa.

“Bobo-Dioulasso is at the crossroads of several West African countries where FGM is a problem,” says Mariam Banemanie, president of Voices of Women, the local NGO that is funding the clinic together with US-based organisation Clitoraid. “Building the clinic here was an easy decision.”

There has been such high demand for the surgery, which will be carried out by US-trained surgeons, that the waiting list has been capped at 100 women.

Banemanie says the 20-minute surgical procedure will involve retrieving a few centimetres of the embedded clitoris. Recovery is expected to take about six weeks.

“FGM strips a woman of her ability to enjoy sex,” she says. “The surgery will restore women’s sex lives and confidence in themselves.”

A similar surgical procedure is available in private health centres in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. Doctors say 90 percent of those who go under the knife recover sexual sensation. But at a cost of 160,000 CFA francs ($332), most women cannot afford the surgery.

“When the pleasure hospital opens it will transform the lives of thousands of women in Burkina Faso and beyond,” says Jean Lankouande, a surgeon who carries out clitoral reconstruction at the Suka Clinic in Ouagadougou.

“I operate on about five victims of FGM a month. That number would rise dramatically if I was able to offer free surgery,” he adds. “I expect the pleasure hospital to be very popular.”

Though FGM was outlawed by Burkina Faso’s government in 1996, the ritual remains widespread in the landlocked West African country.

About 70 percent of the country’s seven million women have been subjected to the practice, in which a girl’s external genitals are cut off, usually without the use of anaesthetic.

The World Health Organisation says three million African girls are at risk of FGM every year. Cross-border FGM is becoming increasingly common, with cutters crossing into neighbouring countries to avoid laws like those in place in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

The vast majority of girls subjected to FGM feel no sexual sensation in later life. Other complications can include incontinence, fistula and risks during pregnancy and childbirth.

“When I was growing up I heard about the long-term effects of undergoing FGM,” says 24-year-old Abi Ouarme, who is on the waiting list for the surgical procedure. “But because sexuality is taboo here, nobody ever told me I would be unable to enjoy sex.”

“The new clinic will allow many women to experience sexual pleasure,” she says.

However, not everyone is happy about the new clinic. Those involved in funding the facility say there has been resistance from people opposed to the reconstructive surgery.

“I’ve seen cases where husbands have tried to stop their wives joining the waiting list,” says Banemanie. “They worry that once their partners learn to experience sexual pleasure they’ll be unfaithful and will run off to enjoy sex with other men.”

But Abibata Sanon, who had clitoral reconstruction surgery three years ago at a private clinic in Ouagadougou, says that’s not the case.

“FGM is traditionally used to tether women to their husbands,” she says. “Genital reconstructive surgery gives us self-esteem, pleasure and confidence, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to rush off and sleep with the first man we see. Once men understand that, they might change their opinion of FGM.”

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