Editor’s note: Our interview of Solani Zapata has been divided into two parts. The first focuses on the work she does to abolish FGM. The second looks more broadly at her role as a leader for women in her community and can be found here.
The Emberá are an indigenous group in Colombia and Panama that has historically been marginalized and impoverished. Until very recently, they were the only group known to practice FGM in Latin America. Solani Zapata was moved to initiate community dialogue around female genital mutilation (FGM) when her mother-in-law instructed her to cut her infant’s clitoris. She and a number of other women traveled between Emberá communities through the Emberá Wera (Emberá Women) Project to raise awareness of the harm FGM can cause. Many communities the women traveled to have now abandoned FGM, though Ms. Zapata continues to work with indigenous authorities and the United Nations Population Fund to put an end to the practice.
How has FGM affected you personally?
I have three kids: two girls and a boy. When my first daughter was born, my then mother in law told me we had to practice FGM on her. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but because I was told that my daughter was going to bleed a lot and cry a lot, and that it was going to hurt a lot, I went completely against it. I said I was sorry, but that was not going to happen to my child. My mother in law accepted it, but warned that if my daughter’s genitals turned into a penis, which was what they though, that I shouldn’t tell anyone in the community about it. I told her, “If it does happen, that is God’s will, and let it be.” That was the end of the subject.
What motivated you to go beyond refusing to take part in the tradition of cutting, and actively work against the practice in your community?
When I did learn more about it, that it was happening to a lot of indigenous girls, and everything it involved and implied, of course I had to take action. I knew that if the practice was not done correctly, the girls could die. I had to fight for that. I didn’t want any more girls risking their lives unnecessarily. I understood it was completely wrong, and people needed to know it was something that had to be stopped.
How was the Emberá Wera Project conceived and created?
In 2007, there was one event that changed the story for everyone. The death of a child, a girl, that had undergone the FGM procedure, she died because of an infection that had been brought on by the procedure. The media took it upon themselves to say that indigenous women were doing things that were not appropriate; that they were violating human rights. The regional committee in Riseralda, and also the institute of wellbeing in Colombia, and the national organization of indigenous people, and the UNFPA came together to help them develop a plan. It was mostly the commotion that was raised among the community and all of Colombia that changed the course.
How did you respond to resistance within the community to your messages about the negative effects of cutting?
At the beginning, [the community members] were very much against talking about the subject; they didn’t even want to bring it up. It was something that had been going on for so many years; it was a cultural practice. The key to breaking down these communication barriers was to have community leaders talk to the members in their own dialect or language. We didn’t bring in people that only spoke Spanish. We needed people who understood the cultural aspects of the communities; that were part of the community. That was the way that other leaders started listening. We did it through different types of workshops that were designed strategically for that purpose. Through the workshops, people were able to talk about what reproductive rights were all about, and all the implications that FGM has, from a medical point of view and [otherwise]. The workshops were directed towards community leaders, and the people who took care of medical work in the community, like midwives, and women in general. We worked right on the ground, talking about the implications of FGM on a woman’s life, and why it was wrong.
From what I understand, once you and your fellow educators began discussions around cutting, the topic broadened to women’s rights, gender-based violence, and sexual health more broadly. How did that shift happen?
During the second congress of indigenous women, we had over 500 participants of the Riseralda community. We knew we wanted to talk about different subjects, like women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and women’s health. The main thing I had done was, initially I knew there was a link between FGM and a woman’s overall health. It was not something that was just one issue, but something that would have an impact on all aspects of life. Not just your sexual and reproductive life, but all your life. I used the opportunity of having so many women together at the congress to talk about the link between those issues.
How could local and international partners promote the success of projects like Emberá Wera to succeed going forward?
It all comes down to resources. We need financial resources to continue getting the materials we need and setting up the workshops. The work we had done for two or three years [through the project] was not enough to completely abolish the practice of FGM. We need to do more workshops and to work with men directly to change something that has been going on for so many years and is still going on to this day. Because it is a part of culture and tradition, it is something that is very difficult to change, and cannot be ended overnight. We definitely need more resources to continue the work we have started. It’s not until we find out a girl has been infected and is in the hospital that we know the practice is happening in a community. People are not talking about it in areas where the technical assistance has not been provided [in the form of workshops]. There are areas where we haven’t had the opportunity to talk to the leaders or to the midwives. It is very difficult to [prevent deaths] unless we are able to continue our work across the other communities.
The biggest challenge I have right now is that there were so many issues left over from the second congress in 2008, having to do the third congress [is being met with reluctance]. It is something I have been working on since last year to get it off the ground. I’ve been knocking on doors, but nobody has given me any response. A lack of economic resources is setting us back. We need to raise $18,000 in order to do the congress.
Do you have any closing comments for people who are interested in your work?
The most important thing I would like to add is that in Riseralda, things are taking place. These workshops and the work with the communities is very strong. Even if we don’t have the economic resources to do everything we would like, we want to be a voice. Any who are interested in doing work through the organizations or with the Riseralda congress, we are more than happy to work with them to bring aid to these communities. It is very important that I tell you that.
Read Part II of our interview with Solani Zapata.
Watch a Prezi about FGM in Colombia: “Linea de Tiempo Sobre la Mutilación Genital Femenina”, UNFPA Colombia, 9 February 2017.
Read a Spanish language article with video about Solani’s work: “Perdiendo el Miedo a Hablar sobre la Mutilación Genital Femenina”, UNFPA, 16 November 2016.
Follow the Facebook page of the Global Alliance against Female Genital Mutilation.