Morissanda Kouyaté, co-winner of the 2020 United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize was in New York to receive his prize on 18 July, Nelson Mandela International Day. Dr. Kouyaté is now the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guinea. Until recently, he was the Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC), and a leading figure in efforts to end violence against women in Africa, including female genital mutilation (FGM). He spoke with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu on what the Prize means to him and what has changed since bagging the prize.
When the prize was announced two years ago, you told us how honored and grateful you were. Is this still the case?
I still am, and I want to thank the United Nations for such an honor. I am very grateful. But whenever I talk about the prize, I always have in mind the tragedy that befell those twin girls [who died after FGM] that got me started in the first place. Today, I still have the emotions I felt then. The drive to end Female Genital Mutilation has not changed. But I am concerned that such practices continue while they should be banned. At the same time, I am comforted that we made a lot of progress even though we had enormous difficulties at the start.
You’ve been committed to ending FGM for almost 40 years now. How will you summarize the journey?
Usually, people think of data, charts, diagrams, curves, etc. when it comes to showing results.
But when people ask me: what have you done during these forty years, what is the result? I like to point to two things, which, for me, give true value to the work we have collectively done.
First, I started as a defender of the rights of women and girls. Today, girls and women are colleagues in the struggle. I am no longer the one trying to protect. They are protecting themselves and I am in it with them.
For me, it is important that young girls organize themselves, in their classrooms, for instance, defend their peers, denounce any FGM attempts, and be ready to go to the police, if need be.
The second point is quite simple. In the beginning, we were hiding to raise awareness about FGM because there was an outcry against us, but, today, it is those who perform FGM that are hiding. The trend has therefore been reversed.
The Award was announced in 2020. How has it been like since then?
Many doors have opened, and the award has strengthened my resolve. The news of the award spread like wildfire and motivated other young boys or young men to join the fight. So, in my opinion, this award has helped demonstrate to others that the fight is worth it.
In 2020, only 16 of the 54 countries were members of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IACW) that you helped created. Is it still the case?
We went from 16 countries to 23 countries that currently have laws against FGM. And that is a big step forward. Another big step forward is that the Inter-African Committee, which I had led until then, decided to broaden its area of concern and work on the rights of women and girls to include child marriage, sexual exclusion of post-menopausal women, and all other harmful practices across the continent.
As you said, membership has gone from 16 to 23. Can this be attributed to your international recognition by the United Nations?
It has helped to show that the issue is serious, to the point of being on a Mandela Prize-level. And that's no small thing. And for me, it's an arrow in a quiver that I have been given to shoot down genital mutilation and to shoot down all the harmful traditional practices of women and girls.
The Mandela Prize was established by a UN General Assembly resolution in June 2014, to recognize the achievements of those who dedicate their lives to the service of humanity, by promoting the purposes and principles of the United Nations, while honouring Nelson Mandela’s life, and legacy of reconciliation, political transition, and social transformation.
The selection committee, chaired by the General Assembly President, receives nominations from a broad variety of sources including UN Member States, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs.
The Prize is awarded every five years and is one of the ways the UN commemorates the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected President of South Africa, and a life-long rights activist who was instrumental in ending the racist apartheid era in the country. Nelson Mandela International Day is held annually on 18 July.
Talking about arrows, could being the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Guinea be another arrow in your quiver? How do you reconcile your fight against female genital mutilation with your new political responsibilities?
You know, I was offered the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs by the president of the transition government in Guinea. He said to me 'You must come and work with your country in this post.' I went into the government with my fight against genital mutilation.
To give an example, I used to battle with foreign ministers of countries, pleading with them to lobby their governments to pass and implement laws against sexual violence. I used to go door-to-door to presidents, to prime ministers, to get their attention. Now, they are my colleagues. So, it's easier. I don't miss any occasion to talk about genital mutilation.
And how has it been so far?
Fantastic! People are rallying around. They know that I came into the government through the door of my fight against female genital mutilation. They know that I speak from my heart. It also benefits my country. When I speak on behalf of my country, people listen to the message I am carrying because a Mandela Prize winner will probably not tell empty stories. They believe he won't dare do it.
Now that you brought gravitas and international recognition to the cause, what lies ahead?
I wrote a pamphlet at the height of the HIV pandemic, and that experience can be applied even here. When we were doing projects, programmes against mutilation, against practices that affect women, and advocating for laws to protect women, one of the obstacles was money. We were told there is no money, no funds for that, and we understood.
But look at the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries have made billions of dollars available. I am saying billions, not millions of dollars, so there is money. Granted, a lot of people died in the pandemic, but FGM handicaps millions of women. So, in terms of the social, sociological and economic weight of impact, the two are comparable. Except that the pandemic is spectacular and therefore attracts more attention. This is a positive for me because now, no one can tell me there is no money.
What will be your takeaway from New York that you could share back in Guinea?
I’ll take away the commitment and the recognition of the international community of the fight we are waging. It's a fight that is now recognized by the whole world. So, we must continue.