In a dusty field, a mile outside the town of Bobo-Dioulasso in western Burkina Faso, a fully equipped new hospital stands idle. Astonishingly, the Minister of Health for this, one of the poorest countries in the world, refuses to allow it to open. The sign outside the hospital advertises that it was built by a charity called Clitoraid and the hospital is known as The Pleasure Hospital. And therein lies the problem.
The initiative for Clitoraid and the Pleasure Hospital comes from the Raëlians, a bizarre religious sect who believe in UFOs, and that the purpose of life is the pursuit of pleasure. The sect claims it launched Clitoraid after learning that more than 100 million women in Africa had been genitally mutilated – a process that denies women sexual pleasure and gives them excruciating pain during intercourse and in childbirth. They raised £250,000 to build the hospital, mainly from donors in California and Canada.
All was set for the opening and the word was put out. In Moussodougou, a village of mud huts 50km (31 miles) from the town, 38-year-old Adjara Souratie summons the women to a meeting under a mango tree. It is 35C in the shade. “It is true,” she tells the bewildered women, “I have seen the hospital with my own eyes. We can be made whole again!”
Female genital mutilation (FGM) no longer takes place in the village. A few years ago, health workers persuaded the village chief that the frequent deaths after cutting and during childbirth, which were once blamed on witchcraft, were in fact due to cutting, or kene-kene, as it is called in the local Turka language. He was persuaded and the order was given to stop. The government of Burkina Faso has outlawed FGM and slowly the message is being passed from village to village.
But for women over the age of 15, it was too late. “I was cut when I was five,” says Adjara, “We were taken to an old lady and she used the same knife on us all.” Twenty-six of the women sitting under the tree raise their hands when she asks who wants to come with her to the Pleasure Hospital.
While the village women make their way to the hospital in Bobo by bus, a team of five American medics has arrived in the town. They are led by Dr Marci Bowers from Chicago, who was born Mark, and is recognised internationally as an expert in transgender surgery and clitoral repair. “FGM is a crime against humanity and I am here to help those who have been victimised by it to gain a sense of freedom.”
The village women are jostling for first position at the hospital doors when they get the devastating news. The local Raëlian representative, Banemanie Traore, apologises and tells them the government has announced that they cannot use the hospital. “I thought it was too good to be true,” says one of the women as they sit down on the hospital steps, uncertain what to do next.
Traore, a striking 59-year-old who underwent clitoral reconstructive surgery six years ago, takes me at running pace through the new, empty hospital. “This would have been the reception area, this the operating theatre, this the recovery room,” she says, opening and slamming doors angrily as she goes. “It doesn’t make sense. There are 130 million women in Africa who have been mutilated and who are denied pleasure. If someone has the idea to build them a hospital, you have to let them do it.”
Dr Bowers is equally frustrated. “I am not a Raëlian. I have come here to do a job and I want to do it.” And, a few hours later, she is. A local doctor loans his clinic to the team from America and the village women are brought in to be operated on. Bebe, a 24-year-old, is among the first. Is she scared? “No, I am not scared,” she says. “I am just angry. They cut me when I was four and it still hurts. Whenever my husband approaches, I just don’t want him.”
Bebe is given a local anaesthetic for the procedure which is a surprisingly simple one. Bowers investigates to see how badly Bebe has been mutilated. “No matter how severe it is,” Bowers explains, “we can always find the clitoris.” Although the visible part of the clitoris is cut off during FGM, it remains below the surface. “Voilà,” Bowers says as she finds it and pulls it up. “The clitoris now looks amazingly normal, part of an unaltered female anatomy.”
By the end of the first day, the team have “restored” eight women. The word is getting out, beyond the borders of Burkina Faso. By day three, women from Senegal, Mali and even Kenya come to the clinic to ask for the operation. The women from the village are pushed back in the queue. By the end of the fourth day, they have operated on 29 women when the government steps in again. The American surgeons are told their licences to work in Burkina Faso have been cancelled.
This time Dr Bowers admits defeat and takes off her surgical gown. “But the cat is out of the bag and is purring,” she adds before leaving. “We’ve been training local doctors, we have had women here from all over Africa. They now know the procedure exists and they will be asking for it.”
So who was responsible for stopping the Pleasure Hospital? French-Canadian doctor Brigitte Boisselier, a prominent Raëlian and president of Clitoraid who flew in for the opening that never happened, blames the “Catholic Church and its cronies, who are conducting a smear campaign against our wonderful mission for their own selfish motives”. The Catholic Church in Burkina Faso has dismissed this as “poisonous rumour”.
An official at the Health Ministry tells me that the opening was cancelled because Clitoraid had not provided essential documents. All of which sounds reasonable until the Health Minister tells another journalist that “medical organisations should be focused on saving lives and not advertising their religion in an attempt to convert vulnerable people”.
Of the 26 women who set out from Moussodougou, only 15 of them were operated on, and Adjara is among those who did not make it to the operating theatre. As they clamber back on to the bus, she shrugs her shoulders wearily. “Now I’ll never know what it feels like to be whole.”
Sue Lloyd-Roberts’ film on the Pleasure Hospital in Burkina Faso is on ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 at 10.30 pm.
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