(Look On! takes occasional note of noteworthy films.) "Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter,” a new documentary by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, is a sensitive and galvanizing account of gender discrimination at the intersection of culture and bureaucracy. (View a clip here.)
The filmmakers follow a mother’s struggle to keep her family from being deported to Mali. The documentary focuses on the serious harm caused by female genital mutilation/cutting practices.
I’ve discussed the complexities in a 1995 article, Between Irua and Female Genital Mutilation: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide and in a more recent article on “Female Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Cutting” in the Encyclopedia of Human Rights.
Awaken!, an excellent newsletter published by the women’s human rights NGO Equality Now!, tracks developments on the issue in English, French, and Arabic. IntLawGrrls Fiona de Londras and Jaya Ramji-Nogales posted here and here on human rights and gender asylum decisions involving FGM-FGC. This World Health Organisation Bulletin discusses some grassroots eradication efforts in Mali.
FGM-FGC practices violate international human rights norms and are prohibited under instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the Maputo Protocol.
The practices cause serious physical injury and death to infants, girls, and women in practicing regions. Yet because FGM-FGC is deeply rooted in community and family traditions (but not required by any formal religion), the practices remain widespread among some ethnic groups. Many countries now outlaw the practices. But the private circumstances under which they occur mean that indigenous community-based education and organizing are important keys to ending FGM-FGC. (On legal and political approaches, see Anika Rahman & Nahid Toubia, Female Genital Mutilation: A Practical Guide to Worldwide Laws and Policies.)
In the film, Mrs. Goundo, who experienced FGM-FGC as a girl, works with an immigrant community leader in Philadelphia, an asylum lawyer, and her husband to prevent her own daughter from returning to Mali. Goundo understands that even if she and her husband object, grandparents, relatives, or other community members might well force the practice on the child.
But there’s another problem. Mrs. Goundo must request legal status for herself under the byzantine U.S. immigration and asylum laws, or else be separated from her U.S.-born daughter and other family members.
Attie and Goldwater provide a nuanced treatment of her predicament. They place Mrs. Goundo and her family in the context of a supportive immigrant community and explore the challenges of navigating the U.S. legal system successfully. They also travel to Mali, where they interview local women’s rights and health advocates who condemn and educate against the practices. They also surface the stereotypes and misinformation that lead some religious and cultural leaders to support them despite the awful consequences.
"Mrs. Goundo's Daughter" is never graphic, but makes the danger and emotional trauma to girls abundantly clear. Students should be prepared in advance with readings on the subject matter and instructors should plan time for discussion after showing the film.
Consultants on the film included leading refugee and gender-asylum expert Deborah Anker and yours truly. The documentary is an effective way to begin discussions about the complex legal, gender, and cultural issues involved. Heartfelt thanks to research assistant Alexis Smith for her help with this post.