New laws and ancient beliefs: How do we wipe out FGM?

by emma-batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 February 2013 15:52 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Emma Batha                                                               

We now have a U.N. resolution calling for an end to the scourge of female genital mutilation (FGM), but where do we go from here? Last week African and European campaigners and ministers gathered in Rome to swap ideas. Here’s a snapshot of some of the news and comments that caught my eye.

  • Gambia looks likely to pass a law against FGM following a concerted grassroots campaign in the face of much resistance. One activist was heard to say that if Gambia can do it, no other country has any excuse. Those still without laws include Mali, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • Burkina Faso, which led the campaign for a U.N. resolution, plans to introduce an umbrella law on violence against women. It will cover 12 types of violence including rape, forced marriage, early marriage and FGM. This will help people understand the links, said Nestorine Sangare, minister for the advancement of women.
  • Indonesia is the first country where activists have used the new U.N. resolution to press their government to end FGM. Indonesia banned FGM in 2006 but has since said the practice is allowed, providing it is carried out to medical standards.
  • Delegates condemned the rise in the “medicalisation of FGM” - the trend for FGM to be done by doctors and nurses to minimise health risks. FGM is not simply a health issue and must be recognised as a basic violation of human rights.
  • Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in debunking the widely held misconception that FGM is a religious duty. We heard from Ivorian Imam Djiguiba Cisse, who uses Friday prayers at his mosque to educate people about FGM.
  • Ivory Coast has a toll-free number for reporting FGM. The imam said it had even received calls from people in France and Germany reporting cases of girls being sent on holiday to Ivory Coast for FGM.
  • In Mauritania, there is no specific FGM law but religious leaders have signed a fatwa against FGM. “There is now a religious edict against it so we can say very clearly that there is no religious support for it,” said campaigner Marieme Baba Sy.
  • In Burkina Faso, the age at which FGM is carried out has dropped as parents try to avoid arrest. It is now often done before a girl can talk and alert the authorities, sometimes when a baby is just a week old.
  • FGM is a cross-border issue. Girls are increasingly being sent to neighbouring countries to have FGM done to avoid detection. Delegates pointed out that countries have different penalties and approaches and called for a harmonisation of laws and an agreement on extradition.
  • Although the U.N. resolution was championed by African countries, campaigners emphasised that FGM is found all over the world – even in Colombia, I discovered.
  • FGM also crosses class and educational backgrounds. “We’re all high class. We’re all cut,” said one Gambian campaigner.
  • FGM should be on the school curriculum – a point made by many campaigners and ministers. There is also a big need to translate laws into local languages and get the media on board.
  • Campaigns should target grandmothers, who traditionally arrange FGM for their granddaughters and wield great power.
  • Don’t underestimate how deeply ingrained FGM is. Florence Ali, president of the Ghanian Association for Women's Welfare, told the story of a grandmother who was arrested. She said she knew FGM was against the law but was less worried about going to prison than what would happen to her if she died and her ancestors asked why she had not done her duty as a grandmother.
  • Traditional cutters have status. If you want them to put down their knives you have to find them another role in the community.
  • FGM is tied up with gender relations. No campaign will work without including men. “It’s a battle that needs to be fought together – men and women” said Benin delegate Memouna Baboni Yacoubou, adviser to the presidency on social affairs. “I come from the north where people think you need to be mutilated to be a good wife, and no man wants a wife who has not been mutilated because a woman who is not mutilated is a woman who may go out.”
  • Finally, never give up. Ivorian Women’s Minister Raymonde Coffie Goudou told how she travelled to a remote community where a young girl had died after FGM. The chief was a fervent believer in FGM and everyone told her she was wasting her time. He is now on board. But Goudou did point out that even though she was a minister addressing a village chief she still had to play the traditional female role, sitting on a mat and holding the chief’s hand as she addressed him.

For more on FGM see our special package on FGM

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