Just days after leaving her Yukon government job to help malnourished children in Chad, Elli Savoie found herself in the desert delivering so many babies there weren’t enough beds.
“We would just mop down the floor with bleach and the women would sit there to give birth,” said the local nurse.
Savoie took all this in stride.
But the condition of the women’s genitals floored her.
“I had never seen anything like this,” she said. “I didn’t even know this kind of genital mutilation existed.”
Called type-three infibulation, it involves cutting out the clitoris and the vagina’s inner lips, then sewing it shut, leaving only a tiny hole.
“Weekly we were seeing dead babies inside women because they couldn’t get them out,” said Savoie.
“This type of scar tissue is not stretchable.”
If the women are lucky enough to get to the hospital, the babies are cut out, she said.
And sometimes the women manage to give birth because their vagina has ripped sideways.
There are more than 140 million women and girls worldwide who have been genitally mutilated, according to the World Health Organization.
Savoie treated thousands of women in her six months in Chad. And every one of them had been genitally mutilated.
“One hundred per cent of them are infibulated,” she said.
The procedure is done when girls are about six years old.
After the home surgery, the children’s legs are tied together for 40 days and they’re left lying on their side.
“They have to pee like this,” said Savoie. “And they have no running water.”
The risk of infection is extreme.
“You see these little girls all playful,” she said. “Then once they start wearing the veil, you know the procedure has been done – you can tell.”
The women’s silence overwhelmed Savoie.
“Even when they’re in labour, not a noise comes out of these women, not even a grunt,” she said. “The pain of labour is nothing, because since they were young they’ve been through so much.”
Savoie had worked in developing countries before, as a community nurse, but this was her first experience in such a volatile country.
After landing in Chad’s capital, Savoie ended up in a tiny Cessna flying all day over “a beautiful carpet” of desert toward a small village perched close to the Sudanese border, filled with men carrying “guns and big knives.”
But Savoie wasn’t worried for her safety.
“I love travelling and know I adapt myself well,” she said. “But I was nervous about being able to do a good job. And being a Canadian woman working in an Islamic culture, I knew that would be hard.”
Savoie is open to cultural differences. But she draws the line when cultural conventions – like female genital mutilation – violate fundamental human rights.
As the months went by, Savoie struck up a good rapport with the Chadian midwife she worked with.
“Eventually she opened up. She admitted she never had any pleasure having sex and that her husband just forced her. It was so sad,” she said.
But Savoie, who was working for Doctors Without Borders, was not in Chad to combat genital mutilation.
“I was there for malnutrition,” she said. “I was in the field and was supposed to be collecting data on malnourished children.”
However, Savoie quickly realized malnutrition is not an isolated problem.
“It’s a polygamous setup,” she said. “So you get men who have three wives and each wife has six kids.”
The women end up fighting with each other over what little food there is, in a desperate attempt to feed their growing broods.
To make matters worse, the women don’t breastfeed their babies, giving them instead contaminated water dug up from dry riverbeds, said Savoie.
If they’re lucky, these malnourished babies grow into malnourished children, who start having babies of their own by their early teens.
Most women in Chad have their first baby at 15 or 16. And most end up with upwards of four children.
“Having your first baby when you are under 16 puts you at a much higher risk,” said Savoie.
So does having more than four children.
And so does giving birth after experiencing genital mutilation.
After a few months collecting data on malnutrition, Savoie could no longer ignore the mutilations she was seeing on a daily basis.
So when the head of Doctor’s Without Border’s Chadian mission happened to show up in the village, Savoie took him to task.
“If (Doctors Without Borders) won’t do human rights activism, who will,” she said.
“There were 50-year-old men marrying their 15-year-old nieces, and I said, ‘OK don’t judge,’” she said.
But when women and children are dying because they are being genitally mutilated, it’s time to speak out, she said.
Savoie convinced Doctors Without Borders that childhood malnutrition cannot be treated in isolation.
“So I began to look at family planning,” she said.
When the 50-year-old men showed up with teenage wives, Savoie began to warn them that if these girls got pregnant too early, they could die.
And she explained that the more children they had, the more dangerous it got.
She learned how to tell women to breastfeed their babies in Arabic. And she started handing out condoms.
Most of the women who came in had sexually transmitted diseases because their husbands are polygamous, she said.
Savoie would treat the women and send medicine home for the other wives and the husband.
“Some men were really proactive,” she said. “And others I would never see.”
But no men wanted their wives to die, she added.
“They were just all trying to survive in this crazy desert.”
As her six months came to a close, Savoie went to the local governor and talked to him about her concerns.
And on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010, he made a speech condemning female genital mutilation.
Savoie had also rallied the local women together. “We created a song and sang it in front of the governor,” she said.
They sang about Chadian women being equal to men. And Savoie had the women make a speech about how they must stand together and become sisters.
“It was one little speech on one afternoon,” she said. “But you have to keep planting little seeds – that’s how you start a revolution.”
Later that afternoon, one of the local male community health workers Savoie had been working with came up to her and spoke his mind.
“Women are not equal to men,” he said. “That’s not true. They’re here to serve us.”
Still, Savoie remains hopeful.
“It’s just a matter of education,” she said.
And it’s not just Chadian people living in remote desert villages who need education.
It’s all of us, she said.
On the tiny plane back to the capital, Savoie was surprised to see so many white faces.
“I thought they were aid workers,” she said.
But they turned out to be oil executives.
“So don’t think you’re not responsible for other people’s suffering because our government is over there doing unethical things,” she said.
Now, back at work with the Yukon government, Savoie is considering pulling out her government pension.
She doesn’t want it invested in unethical Canadian companies, like the ones taking oil out of Chad.
“We need to shake people and say, ‘OK, what do we do?’” said Savoie. “Because we’re all entangled in this in some way. And some of us are way more lucky than others.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at