Baby girls cut in secret as Burkina Faso cracks down on FGM

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 February 2013 17:45 GMT
Burkina minister says parents are having their daughters cut before they can speak to avoid detection

By Emma Batha

ROME (TrustLaw) - Burkina Faso’s tough stance on female genital mutilation (FGM) is leading parents to have their daughters cut as babies to avoid detection, the country’s women’s minister says.

In the past, FGM was performed on teenagers and celebrated in the community but the practice is now arranged in secret, Minister for Women’s Advancement Nestorine Sangare told TrustLaw.

She said parents also avoided arrest by taking their daughters to neighbouring West African countries to have FGM done.

“There are no more public rituals around the practice like dancing. In my time I was circumcised at 14 … But now it’s done on very young babies – seven days, one month,” she added.

“It’s done when they are under one year before they can speak and tell someone outside the house they have been subjected to FGM.”

Burkina Faso banned FGM in 1996, one of the first African countries to do so. Offenders face up to three years in prison or up to 10 years if the girl dies. They may also be fined up to CFA francs 900,000 ($1,823).

Activists from other countries including Senegal and Gambia have also told TrustLaw that the age at which girls are cut is falling as opposition to the practice grows.

In Burkina Faso, FGM usually involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris. In other countries the vaginal opening may also be sewn closed.

The procedure, performed by traditional cutters, is widely seen as a prerequisite for marriage and social acceptance by practicing communities.

Sangare said younger Bukinabes often justified FGM as a means of controlling girls’ sexuality, with uncut girls seen as "more frivolous and promiscuous". 

The practice - thought to affect 140 million girls and women worldwide - can cause serious health problems and increases the risk of labour complications and newborn deaths.

NEW LAW

International campaigners have praised Burkina Faso for its efforts to eradicate FGM, which is practiced by both Muslim and Catholic communities as well as followers of traditional beliefs. 

The country has carried out hundreds of prosecutions and set up a hotline where people can inform the authorities if they hear FGM is about to happen.

Burkina Faso’s First Lady Chantal Compaore also played a pivotal role in pushing for the recent United Nations resolution on ending FGM.

Sangare said Burkina Faso is now preparing a comprehensive law on violence against women which will cover 12 types of offence including FGM, rape, and forced and early marriage.  

A single law will help people understand the links between different forms of violence which often share the same underlying causes, she told TrustLaw on the sidelines of an international conference on FGM in Rome this month.

Sangare also called on countries to harmonise their laws and approaches to FGM to stop cutters and parents using borders as a means to avoid arrest.

Burkina Faso shares borders with Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Ivory Coast and Mali. All, except Mali, have laws against FGM, but enforcement is often lax.

“If in one country the maximum sentence is one year and in another it’s 10 years, clearly the cutters will go where the laws are less severe,” the minister said.

She also called for regional co-operation to facilitate extradition of people who cross borders to carry out FGM.

Sangare said Burkina Faso was advising other countries in the region on tackling FGM, and community stations in the border regions were helping to educate people in local languages.

Estimates for FGM prevalence in Burkina Faso vary, but Sangare quoted a survey which showed it had fallen from 75 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2006. Prevalence is dropping faster in the younger age groups.

The minister said Burkina Faso’s commitment to tackling FGM went back to the revolutionary period in the 1980s when President Thomas Sankara did much to promote women's rights.

She attributed Burkina Faso’s success to political will, social mobilisation, media support and a society open to new ideas.

Sangare also pointed out that religion does not play the same dominant role in secular, multi-faith Burkina Faso as it does in some other countries where FGM is often promoted as a religious duty.

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