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Female genital cutting, a traditional ritual in many countries, can cause lasting harm to women, leaving them with pain, sexual dysfunction and emotional trauma. For a recent front-page article, Pam Belluck, a health and science reporter for The Times, spent time over two years with four women who were cut as girls in Africa and are now living in the United States, where they sought the help of a surgeon, Dr. Ivona Percec at the University of Pennsylvania. The surgeon performed a procedure known as clitoral reconstruction, aiming to ease pain, improve sexual sensation and restore the appearance of intact female anatomy.
The surgery is still viewed with skepticism by some medical experts, and the World Health Organization cautions that there isn’t enough evidence of its safety or effectiveness for women who have experienced cutting (also called female genital mutilation).
But demand for such operations is growing as women who have been genitally cut move to places where medicine is advanced, insurance often covers surgery and women have more autonomy. The four women shared some of their most personal experiences with Ms. Belluck, and one of them, Aminata Welcome, allowed Ms. Belluck to be in the operating room during her surgery. Ms. Belluck recently discussed her reporting. Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you want to tackle this subject?
We’re talking about 200 million women and girls in the world today that have undergone female genital cutting. And in their home countries, and as they move to the Western world, it’s unclear how to best take care of their physical health concerns and their emotional health concerns. Doctors in the Western world, if they know about it, are often uncomfortable asking.
We just felt like it would be very valuable to look at what is available to help women in this circumstance since there are so many.
What was it like to be in the room for Ms. Welcome’s surgery? What did that allow you to bring to the story?
It really helped me see step by step what the procedure involved, so I could describe it more accurately to our readers. And just being there helps you identify a bit more with what the patient is going through and what her body has been through. I think that is valuable.
How did you approach the process of talking with the women about their intimate and traumatic experiences?
I have a history of writing stories about very sensitive topics, such as mental illness and postpartum depression. I feel like the best way to tell the story and show our readers what is happening — and, honestly, also to reduce stigma — is to bring out the stories of real people who are going through those experiences.
I have a lot of respect for the fact that they are allowing me to hear their story. I think that maybe that comes through, that sense that I am not making any judgments. I’m just listening and asking questions and letting them know that they can feel comfortable sharing what they would like to share. I think it’s just about investing time and attention and respect and allowing them to ask me questions if they want: What is this story going to look like? They have agency and really valuable stories to tell.
What do you want readers to take away?
I think maybe first and foremost, a better understanding of a very large part of the world where this has been a cultural practice, and an understanding of what women from these cultures have experienced.
Is there anything else that you’d hope readers think about?
One thing that several people have mentioned to me is that they found the story very notable for its clarity and open way of talking about female anatomy. This has not historically been a strength of The Times or lots of other places. There is an issue with being able to describe women’s bodies without euphemisms and without masking things. If we’re able to do that, it contributes both to equality and to not giving a message that women should be ashamed or feel uncomfortable about their anatomy.
My editor, Celia Dugger, and I both felt that because these women are speaking openly, and they feel comfortable enough to talk about these very detailed things, we should write it the way they say it because that is the reality for the women. These are their bodies and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
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