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Friday, July 31, 2009

Female Genital Circumcision: Uganda, Sudan and Western Debate

July 31, 2009 Uganda has moved to ban female circumcision with support from President Yoweri Museveni. The law will award the death penalty to anyone who performs on a circumcision on a girl who ends up dying from the process. Female genital circumcision (FGC), also often referred to as female genital cutting or mutilation, happens in some communities in Asia, Middle East, Americas and Europe. However, the majority of cases occur in various African countries. The process involves partial or total removal of external female genitalia. It is often performed as a rite of passage into womanhood. Many parents enforce the practice in order to ensure their daughters are marriage material. The procedure is done on girls from infancy to approximately 15 years of age. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 100-140 million girls and women have been circumcised and millions more are at risk each year. WHO along with other international agencies has recognized FGC as a human rights violation. Health concerns top the list of reasons why there is a movement to stop FGC from happening. A high risk of infection, infertility and complications during childbirth can result from having the painful procedure. A motive for perform FGC in preparation for marriage is to decrease the chance a girl will be unfaithful to her husband. Intercourse is painful or may even require further surgery after the initial cutting. To my knowledge there are no required procedures for men to undergo before getting married to ensure their fidelity. This shows a significant gender inequity that result in women having less control over their own bodies. This fundamental power imbalance is another argument human rights organization give for eliminating FGC. Despite the physical and psychological effects, there is significant debate about whether western feminists should enter their opinion on the subject at all. Since this is not a part of western cultural tradition then we can’t fully understand it and therefore are not making an objective evaluation. “Anti-FGM discourse perpetuates a colonialist assumption by universalizing a particular western image of a ‘normal’ body and sexuality.” - Dr. Wairimu Njambi Ideally, solutions will come organically from within a community, but it is often nudged from the outside resources that assist in that growth. An increase in education and empowerment can begin to facilitate in supporting internal community leaders. These types of action do not have assume a western slant, but can be something as simple as increasing female literacy which can promote internal community development and make it more sustainable. One argument for supporting the continued practice is about choice. The idea is that if a girl “chooses” to go under the knife then the act is justifiable. However, is it a fair choice when girls are told they will be outcasts and never marry if they don’t go through with it. Also, there is the question about what age she will be able to make a clear choice. Most girls get circumcised before their 15th birthday. In order for girls to make a choice based on free will it is essential they know and understand all the risks and consequences. There are communities of women that are finding unique ways of dealing with the issue using cultural traditions. In Sudan there have been reports of collaboration between henna artists and midwives arranging fake circumcisions. Organizations have started to train henna artists in ways to talk about FGC with clients. If a mother is concerned for her daughter and doesn’t want her to be cut then she may talk to a henna artist or even simply show henna tattoos that do the talking for her. In addition, I have recently heard a lot of debate about male circumcision. Although the effects of male circumcision are less severe it is an issue that deserves some thought. I hadn’t considered the topic in any real way until my friend got visibly upset after finding out that most men in the United States are circumcised even without it being associated with a religious tradition. There doesn’t seem to be many benefits to FGC and I do believe it should not be practiced. Ugandan President Musevent seems to hold a similar belief and has been quoted saying “Yes, I support culture but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information,” reported the Mail and Guardian. I would love to hear ideas in the debate about circumcision and ideas on cultural relativism and objective morals.

"Mrs. Goundo's Daughter" Explores FGM Asylum Case

July 31, 2009

Last night I went to a screening of the film Mrs. Goundo's Daughter, which follows the story of a mother from Mali as she fights for asylum so that her U.S. citizen daughter, Djenebou, will not be circumcised upon return to Mali.

Filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater follow Mrs. Goundo's immigration case in Philadelphia but also track a circumcision ceremony in Mali where 62 young girls are circumcised. The filmmakers interview several people, including expatriate Malian women who underwent FGM, Malian activists working to stop the practice, imams in Mali and the U.S. who have differing views on the practice's relation to Islam, female supporters of FGM in Mali, and the woman who was paid to circumcise the girls.

Several people interviewed, whether pro or anti-FGM, said the principle justification of the practice is to control women's supposedly insatiable sexual desire. Paraphrasing one young Malian imam in the film, "They are jumping over the walls to get sex as it is, imagine if they weren't circumcised."

Those who support the practice attribute it to divine will. In Mali, the great majority of women undergo FGM. The health effects of FGM can be severe, including infection or death from blood loss at the time of the cutting, and later ulcers, scar tissue, cysts, complications in pregnancy, incontinence, repeated urinary infections, obstruction in menstrual flow, infertility, chronic pelvic pain. The practice may also facilitate the transmission of HIV.

FGM is so prevalent in Mali, and cultural pressure to do it are so strong, that mothers cannot trust their own families not to send their daughters to be circumcised at the first opportunity. Uncircumcised women in Mali are undesirable and ostracized, so the family views FGM as in the best interest of the child.

Immigration judges in Philly are familiar with FGM asylum law because of the sizable West African community here. From the film's website:

To stay in the U.S., Mrs. Goundo must persuade an immigration judge that her two-year old daughter Djenebou, born in the U.S., will almost certainly suffer clitoral excision if Goundo is deported. In Mali, where up to 85% of women and girls are excised, Mrs. Goundo and her husband are convinced they would be powerless to protect their daughter from her well-intentioned grandparents, who believe all girls should be excised.

The filmmakers got the court tapes (presumably through a FOIA request made by Mrs. Goundo) and at one point in the film the government attorney argues that Djenebou is not being deported, that as a U.S. citizen she could simply stay in the U.S. to avoid her fate. At the age of two! This is a specious argument. Clearly if the mother is deported, a two-year-old child will go with the mother.

This is a film I recommend to anyone interested in learning about asylum law or the practice of FGM (or female genital cutting). At the end of the film, the filmmakers were asked what the audience could do to get involved with this issue, and they recommended supporting the work of Tostan, an NGO based in Senegal that works with local organizations throughout Africa to halt the practice of FGM. I would also say you could support local or national immigrant rights organizations who represent asylum-seekers on a daily basis (ACLU, NILC, AILF, and any number of local organizations).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sudan's Female Genital Mutilation Countered by Henna-Dyed Hands

July 28, 2009
By H'Rina DeTroy

Sudan has tried to eradicate female genital mutilation since 1946 to little avail. But now women's health groups have taken the crusade in their hands--or rather, their own painted hands--in an effort to subvert the practice.

NGOs are training midwives and henna artists to cooperate using a secret code communicated through henna tattoos. Called the henna technique, a special design dyed temporarily on the skin can indicate to a midwife that a mother wants to avoid genital mutilation on her daughter. The tattoos serve as a bridge to discuss what is traditionally taboo. In turn, a midwife can stage a fake circumcision.

"It's underground," said Mawahib Mohamed of the Sudan Council of Volunteer Agencies (SCOVA). "It's totally something that women would invent." She said that midwives from the eastern and mountainous Nuer region invented the technique.

Mohamed said that SCOVA supports organizations dedicated to social and health-centered initiatives, like educating midwives about hygiene, immunizations and the risks of FGM. In Sudan, midwives help deliver babies and circumcise the girls after they reach the age of 5.

Normally, NGOs train midwives on how to counsel mothers about the dangers of FGM. Now they are taking bolder steps, showing midwives how to make a bogus ceremony, without any cutting.

But training midwives wasn't enough. Organizations also started teaching henna artists how to talk to clients about FGM. Unlike a midwife, who is present only during birth and circumcision, the interaction with a local henna artist is frequent because henna is applied on the hands and feet for occasions like engagements, baby showers and weddings. Married women always wear a basic design.

If a mother confides that she's afraid or worried about circumcising her daughter, a henna painter can refer the mother to a list of anti-FGM midwives. If the mother feels shy about broaching the subject, she can rely on a henna tattoo to communicate what she can't in words.

In traditional Sudanese communities, women who speak out against circumcision can be criticized for condoning promiscuity and infidelity.

"It's the only thing that works," said Mohamed, who was born in Sudan and lives in Brooklyn. She wore henna on the tips of her fingers, with a heart just below her thumb.

Midwives and henna artists who undermine it gain popularity through referrals to others in the same dilemma. In this way, eradication is clandestine and in women-only spaces.

Generally, FGM happens to girls aged 5 to 14 because parents believe that it will preserve virginity, communicate status, and even protect them from rape. Circumcisions close to adolescence mark passage into womanhood, but are also performed as early as days or weeks after birth or as late as marriage or pregnancy.

In Sudan, the most common of 4 types of FGM is infibulation, considered the most invasive and harmful. The procedure involves removing the inner labia and clitoris, then sowing the outer labia together and leaving 2 openings for urination and menstruation. The skin fuses and intercourse or childbirth can cause breakage and subsequent re-sowing. Girls have died from loss of blood during the procedure, or from infections if the instruments weren't properly sanitized. For many, it's a life of chronic infections and pain.

The 2006 Sudan Household Survey, the most extensive population measurements to date, reflects circumcision in 75 to 80 percent of females in the northern parts of the country surrounding the capitol, Khartoum. In poorer regions, like Darfur, the survey shows that 40 to 60 percent are afflicted. The index illustrating the highest level of education and wealth translates into a higher prevalence of FGM, but also represents the group with the lowest intent to circumcise their daughters.

The procedure is not limited to a specific religion, but it is prevalent in Muslim communities in Sudan. In Kenya, FGM is common among Christians. Neither the Qu'ran nor the Bible endorses the practice.

Population surveys across the continent show three countries with a higher prevalence of FGM in Mali, Egypt and Guinea. Uganda recently launch a campaign to ban FGM.
Executive Director Taina Bien-Aime of Equality Now, a New York based group that works on FGM issues across Africa, said she had not learned of the henna technique-- but it seemed likely.

She commended any local effort to abandon the practice. She said large organizations like UNICEF have not been as effective in the past because they used one approach to fight female circumcision and applied it across Africa. She said a diverse response and customized, local approaches are key to eradication.
"If you ignore the work that's happening locally-- even though they don't produce glossy brochures, we will be trying to fight this for next 30 years," said Bien-Aime.


H'Rina DeTroy is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist studying international reporting at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

GAMCOTRAP Trains Security Officers In URR

July 28, 2009 Fifty security officers from the different units of the armed forces, six chiefs, women and opinion leaders from the Upper River Region participated at a training workshop on gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health rights and traditional practices in Basse, Upper River Region. The training was organised by The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the health of women and children- GAMCOTRAP recently. Deputizing for the governor of upper river region, Mr. M.S Kah said training security officers would empower them to deal with the issues affecting women and girls both in their professional and private lives. “People are empowered because of information,” he emphasised. Deputy Governor Kah pointed out that security is a fundamental aspect of development and they have a role to play and highlighted that NGOs are engaged to supplement government efforts in the development processes. In her statement, elected Area Councillor and Women’s Leader in Basse, Mariama Jaw noted that they need the right information to protect their girl-children from FGM and other harmful traditional practices. She called for an annual training of security officers because they are frequently on transfer to other regions. The executive director of GAMCOTRAP Dr. Isatou Touray called on the security officers to play their role in protecting the rights of women and girls against female genital mutilation because it violates their bodily integrity and rights. As security officers, they are expected to be aware of all the international, regional and national commitments that are geared towards respect for human dignity and promotion of women and children’s rights, the girl-children in particular. Human rights activist, Kebba Susso of Basse Mansajang called on people in uniform and in authority to be good role models for the rest of society. He raised concern over people in position of power impregnating girls and then denying responsibility. Amongst the issues raised was forced marriage and how it affects the rights of the girl-child, social cohesion and families. Reacting to the knowledge gained on female genital mutilation in particular, security officers called for the national assembly to pass a specific law against the practice and that they will ensure to play their role in its implementation. Some of the participants also promised to protect their own daughters against FGM, acknowledging that ignorance of the effect FGM has on girls and women is one of reasons why they continue to subject them to the practice. It was explained that FGM is not a Quranic injunction nor an obligation for females. The workshop was an opportunity for the security officers to learn about the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women-CEDAW, the convention on the rights of the child-CRC, the protocol to the African charter on the rights of women in Africa amongst others and the role of the security in the prevention of rape and other forms of violence against women.

Prevalence and associated factors of female genital mutilation among Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia: a cross-sectional study

July 28, 2009 Eastern Ethiopia hosts a substantial number of refugees originated from Somalia. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a common practice in the area, despite the campaigns to eliminate it. Methods: A cross-sectional study was conducted among 492 respondents sampled from three refugee camps in Somali Regional State, Eastern Ethiopia, to determine the prevalence and associated factors of FGM. Data were collected using pre-tested structured questionnaires. Results: Although the intention of the parents to circumcise their daughters was high (84%), 42.4% of 288 [less than or equal to]12 girls were reported being undergone FGM. The prevalence increased with age, and about 52% and 95% were circumcised at the age of 7-8 and 11-12 years, respectively. Almost all operations were performed by traditional circumcisers (81%) and birth attendants (18%). Clitoral cutting (64%) and narrowing of the vaginal opening through stitching (36%) were the two common forms of FGM reported by the respondents. Participation of the parents in anti-FGM interventions is statistically associated with lower practice and intention of the procedures. Conclusion: FGM is widely practised among the Somali refugee community in Eastern Ethiopia, and there was a considerable support for the continuation of the practice particularly among women. The findings indicate a reported shift of FGM from its severe form to milder clitoral cutting. More men than women positively viewed anti-FGM interventions, and fewer men than women had the intention to let their daughters undergo FGM, indicating the need to involve men in anti-FGM activities. Author: Getnet MitikeWakgari Deressa

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gender Sensitivity Among Nigerian Ethnic Group: Female Circumcision

July 27, 2009

FEMALE CIRCUMCISION IN NIGERIA

Female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female circumcision in Nigeria, is a common practice in many societies in the northern half of sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly universal in a few countries, it is practiced by various groups in at least 25 African countries, in Yemen, and in immigrant African populations in Europe and North America. In a few societies, the procedure is routinely carried out when a girl is a few weeks or a few months old (e. g. Eritrea, Yemen), while in most others, it occurs later in childhood or adolescence. In the case of the latter, FGC is typically part of a ritual initiation into womanhood that includes a period of seclusion and education about the rights and duties of a wife. The 2003 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (2003 NDHS) collected data on the practice of female circumcision in Nigeria from all women age 15-49. The 1999 NDHS collected data on female circumcision only from currently married women. In this chapter, topics discussed include knowledge, prevalence, and type; age at circumcision; person who performed the circumcision; and attitudes towards the practice.

KNOWLEDGE AND PREVALENCE OF FEMALE CIRCUMCISION

About half (53 percent) of Nigerian women age 15-49 have heard of the practice. There are marked variations in knowledge of female circumcision by residence, region, education, and ethnicity. About two-thirds of urban respondents have heard of female circumcision, compared with less than half of women in rural areas (69 versus 45 percent). In general, women in the south are more than twice as likely as women in the north to haven heard of the practice. These variations by region and residence are a reflection of ethnic differentials. The Igbo and Yoruba, who are primarily resident in the South East and South West, respectively, have greater knowledge of female circumcision than the ethnic groups primarily resident in the north.

Table 13. 1 also shows the prevalence of female circumcision by background characteristics, which follows the same patterns as knowledge of circumcision. The proportion of women who were circumcised at the time of the survey was greatest in the southern regions, among the Yoruba and Igbo, and among urban residents. The high prevalence of female circumcision among the Yoruba (61 percent) and Igbo (45 percent) helps to explain regional and urban-rural differentials, since the Yoruba and Igbo traditionally reside in the South West and South East, which are more urban than the north. More than twice as many of the oldest women as the youngest women are circumcised (28 versus 13 percent), suggesting that there has been a decline in the practice. Caldwell et al. (2000) have reported a decline in the prevalence of female circumcision among the Yoruba.

AGE AT CIRCUMCISION

The percent distribution of women by age at circumcision is presented in Table 13. 2. Female circumcision in Nigeria occurs mostly in infancy (i. e. , before the first birthday). Three-quarters of the women who underwent circumcision were circumcised by age one. Twenty-one percent, however, were circumcised at age five or older. There are marked variations in the proportions of women circumcised in infancy by residence and ethnicity. For instance, almost nine in ten Igbo and Yoruba were circumcised during infancy compared with less than half of those in other ethnic groups (45 percent). Infibulation, the most severe form of circumcision, is more likely to be carried out on women circumcised at a later age than on the very young. The table shows that 37 percent of those cut before the age of one had been infibulated, while 49 percent of those circumcised after the age of four were infibulated. It should be noted that the total number of respondents infibulated was 57.

Nigeria is a male dominated society and women are seen as inferior to men. Women’s traditional role is to have children and be responsible for the home. Their low status and lack of access to education increases their vulnerability to HIV infection. Certain social and cultural practices also make them vulnerable to HIV.

HIV/AIDS AND NIGERIAN WOMEN: CAUSES

Marriage practices

Harmful marriage practices violate women’s human rights and contribute to increasing HIV rates in women and girls. In Nigeria there is no legal minimum age for marriage and early marriage is still the norm in some areas. Parents see it as a way of protecting young girls from the outside world and maintaining their chastity.

Many girls get married between the ages of 12 and 13 and there is usually a large age gap between husband and wife. Young married girls are at risk of contracting HIV from their husbands as it is acceptable for men to have sexual partners outside marriage and some men have more than one wife (polygamy). Because of their age, lack of education and low status, young married girls are not able to negotiate condom use to protect themselves against HIV and STIs.

Female circumcision

Female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice whereby all or part of the external female genitalia is removed by cutting. Around 60% of all Nigerian women experience FGM and it is most common in the south, where up to 85% of women undergo it at some point in their lives. FGM puts women and girls at risk of contracting HIV from unsterilized instruments, such as knives and broken glass that are used during the procedure.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

I Had to Do It

July 26, 2009
by Kenechukwu Obi

Footsteps rattled in the building very close to ours, and seemed to be headed for the room in which I was just about taking my pound of flesh. Then I stopped to wonder if anyone had discovered my plot, and was rushing in to stop me. Sudden rush of adrenalin compelled me to trot quietly into the empty wardrobe that was beside the bed on which my target lay, sleeping. The whole attention I could muster was heaped at the only door that ushered entrance into the room, as I waited to hear someone open it. And when that did not happen in ten minutes, I concluded that apart from my target, I was all alone in the room.

I left the wardrobe in a most gentle way. Not even the faintest of sounds could escape to betray my ominous presence in the room. One would hear a pin drop to the ground but not my prowl towards my target. I don’t know how I came to be so good at this, but hatred certainly brought me this far.

Her appearance beamed so much innocence. So did sleep make her. I was not going to allow that dilute my resolve to accomplish my mission. Her breathing was gentle and exuded so much inner peace. She was just a perfect epitome of a sleeping child savouring a peaceful atmosphere, but very unaware of the unpalatable so close to ripping her apart. I thought the scenery was one any artist would be dying to capture on canvass. The pillow in my hands was by now about to descend hard on her face and held in place with every chunk of my strength, till the deed was done. I would have been dead through suicide by the time you would finish reading this and get to know why I had to act the way I did. I guess I would be very glad in death, knowing that you would use your position as the editor of the largest circulating daily newspaper to get this published.

Brutality that our people have long called tradition had so much stolen their sense of decency, hygiene and humanity. I can tell you precisely when I made up my mind to do what I had to do as my protest against it. I had reasoned that if every girl that got caught in it would do as I did, that womanhood would come to earn some respect from those who always use tradition to brutalise it.

My mother who got widowed after I had lived only for two months on earth, returned home from our village, which was near Calabar in Southern Nigeria. That afternoon was full of scorching heat of the sun. And my mother told me my grandmother wanted to see me in the village.

“You have to prepare and leave next week. Your grand mother is so fond of you.” She hinted again.

I was excited, being the second time I would have a chance to travel to my village since I was born. The excitement in me was so big that I forgot to ask a question I should have asked. Can you guess the question correctly? I’m sure you won’t want to do that because by now, even though I can’t see you, but I want to believe you are already too hungry for this bomb-of-a-story that is just commencing to unfold. Relax your nerves for it. It is my pleasure to release this ‘bomb’ as long as it won’t blast you out of existence.

I forgot to ask what exactly my grandmother wanted to see me for. Excitement carried me away. My mother gave me some money for my journey as well as some advice on how to conduct myself properly on getting to the village.

“Please be obedient to everybody there. Be a respectful girl,” she said to me.

“You are saying that I should do whatever I’m asked to do there?” I responded.

“Yes, Angelina. I know you can be very stubborn atimes but be very obedient to people there.”

“Even if I’m being asked to lie down to be killed?” My mother laughed.

“Nobody is going to kill you,” she enthused afterwards.

Please don’t even for a second think that my mother lacked some kind of description. Her height can very well be described as tall, while her flat nose and hairy skinny bow-legs lend unprecedented credence to the scientific claim that man evolved from apes.

It was welcomed severally when I arrived at my village. My grandmother gave me something to eat and some water to drink. I was relaxed and beamed gladness that I had made the journey.

My grandmother was so excited to have me around. She was full of smiles and laughter that exposed the fact that the total number of teeth in her mouth was no longer thirty-two. Excitement also drove her to keep telling her contemporaries that her granddaughter had come in from Lagos. They all came to see me, each giving me a hug amidst laughter and joy that enabled me to notice that they too had a problem keeping their thirty-two teeth. Old age must have a way of knocking-off women’s teeth, turning them to hags that could cause one instant convulsions, I thought. I was like a young queen in the midst of the local people. They savoured all my stories about Lagos.

“If you get to live in Lagos, you will like it,” I concluded.

My stories left a lot of girls that came to my grandmother’s place to listen, wishing they were resident in Lagos.

“Oh! My daughter! You have grown to this big size. That is great. We shall soon be expecting you to get married. Is this how Lagos makes children grow so fast?” My grandmother kept saying as she took me around the next day, introducing me to more people. I had by now got tired of being shown around. I was angry a bit but I pretended to be pleased all along.

“You will accompany me to the next village called Kana,” my grandmother said to me two days later. “I want to buy things there.”

She did not mention what she wanted to buy and I did not bother to ask her. To me, Kana provided a chance to savour some more rustic views that Lagos never had.

I noticed before my grandmother and I left for Kana that some local people around stared at me. Stares that said, ‘if only she knows what is coming to her’. I didn’t give a deep thought to what exactly their stares could mean, as I believed they were just admiring the fine dress I wore. Grandmother bought nothing when we got to Kana. She took me into a big compound instead, where we were received by a very fat dark complexioned woman. Though the woman was beautiful, her size was not to my liking. Her legs and hands could almost be said to be the same in size with that of a matured cow. She was just irritatingly full of body fat. She exuded a strange air of authority that made me uncomfortable. I sensed danger in my surrounding as my gaze fell on the fat woman who could well pass for a bull. My grandmother greeted her. She turned to look at me.

“Is this the girl?” She asked my grandmother. My grandmother’s nod was in the affirmative. Fear dawned on me. I began to believe that I was brought to Kana for rituals. And I saw that finding an escape route in the compound wasn’t going to be easy. Five hefty young men were by now blocking the only gate into the compound whose surrounding walls were quite high.

“Are you a virgin?” The fat woman asked me.

I had to throw an enquiring glance at my grandmother. My glance sought to know what warranted the question.

“Can’t you answer?” My grandmother thundered. I told them I was a virgin.

“Better say the truth so that we shall know how to proceed,” grunted the fat woman. I told them again that I was a virgin, not really knowing exactly what to do. Do you know what I did next? I’m sure you have not started feeling sorry for me yet. If you have, then it is premature. I did nothing else but look on, not knowing what my fate was at that time. Like a sacrificial lamb waiting for the appointed moment, you may suggest.

My grandmother took me a bit away from the fat woman and aggressively demanded the truth. Again on if I had slept with any man before. And once again, my answer was no.

“Why the question and what are we doing here?” I queried my grandmother. Her reply sounded most ridiculous. But what kept me going was that I gave my mother my word not to be disobedient.

“We have only come for this woman to make you beautiful by seeing your body,” my grandmother answered. Then I was later taken into a room where I was asked to undress completely. This I did very reluctantly anyway. Please, don’t ever ask me what they saw when I was out of clothes. Just use your imagination. The fat woman questioned why I undressed reluctantly before her, if I had not slept with a man before. I was shy, and also because I didn’t understand what my stripping naked was going to be for. Then I started to cry. The fat woman went ahead to invite a man that could easily pass for a baboon. The hairs on his hands alone put so much fear into me and got me more reluctant to comply with further directives.

‘We are all here to make you look beautiful enough for a man to desire you for marriage,” said the fat woman.

I suddenly looked for my grandmother out of fear, but she was no where again in the room. She just disappeared on me, leaving me at the mercy of a group of people who were not making sense at all.

I was directed to lie on my back and part my legs. This I did because I was not told that a sharp object was coming. ‘The baboon’ pounced on me and held my legs apart. A scream escaped from my mouth when I saw the fat woman approaching my parted legs with a new sharp razor blade.

‘Shut up!” She screamed.

I kept screaming and trying hard to escape, but the ‘baboon’ would not let me. The fat woman began to massage my clitoris, so hard that it hurt. She then asked me never to mention death during or immediately after the proceeding. She also explained why.

“If you do say that, then you will die because ghosts of some girls who died doing this are around to take away any girl that mentions death here.”

The fat woman sliced off a bit of my clitoris with the razor blade. What do you think I did? Come on, think. I ran away? Is that what you guess I did? That would be a very wrong guess. What was the ‘baboon’ there for? It was of course to forestall such. I could only scream, wail and wriggle in excruciating pain. The blood that gushed out and coated my pubic region was cleaned with cotton wool dipped in what I suspected to be local gin. It really hurt.

“Congratulations!” Everyone in the room started saying to me after all the cleaning was done.

Those who had brought savagery to my private part now became full of smiles and pouring encomiums on me while I still cried. They congratulated me especially for being a virgin and for becoming from then on, a real woman. I uttered no word, but hated them all, as the congratulatory messages kept pouring out. What a tradition! I know you won’t support it for the sake of your sisters alone. Please I am not trying in any way to suggest that you are a self-centred person. Protect them as much as possible from this demonic tradition that has permeated the fabric of our society. Please protect them from this unhygienic, barbaric and inhumane female genital mutilation.

My ordeal did not see its end with the evil mutilation completed. It was from one practice to another.

“You will have to go to your fattening room,” said my grand mother who appeared after my private part had been abused by most unwanted persons. I didn’t care to respond to her comment. My stabbing glare just nailed her as she pretended not to be partly behind my ordeal. “It is important that you put on some flesh so that prospective suitors will really appreciate you better,” she went on to say again. I just kept mute and tried to endure excruciating pain. My pubic region was just aching. It seemed as if fire so hot and as wild as those of California was burning right there.

The fattening room I was taken to had no bed. I wondered where I would be sleeping on. There were bamboo sticks on the left side of the floor. It was later that I was informed that the bamboo sticks would be my bed for the period that I would occupy the fattening room. I was told the sticks were meant to relax my bones and help in getting me fat. This did not make sense to me again. A number of women worked in the fattening house made up of lots of rooms. And one of them always came to rob my body with palm oil each morning, after I had had my bath. What then followed was food. I had problems finishing large quantities of starchy food always given to me especially boiled plantain. This was meant to fatten me. I found them nauseating, and this incurred me the wrath of the law that reigned supreme in the fattening house. No left-over food, no matter what.

“I will beat you! I will hit your head with a stick if you don’t finish your food!” These were threats from women who worked in the fattening house. Women so fat that one would believe their weights can push down mountains. I had to eat more than I would normally do. It got to a point that I thought my stomach was going to burst one night. The only difference the copious feeding made in me was that the size of my faeces gradually began to grow in stature, and was growing to make the size of a hill. I was not getting fat, contrary to expectations. The frustration of the women whose duty it was to see that I got fat then began to grow. My case presented a tough challenge them. It called their proven expertise to question. They all eventually had no other choice than to become very angry with me, when I even seemed to be getting thinner with more food. It was not just working. It got to a point when I had to be expelled from the fattening house. And this was after the frustrated women had finished raining all sorts of abuses on me.

‘Leave! Hurry and leave this place! What is this? Are you sure you are human? You can’t be normal! Leave so that we can attend to other women that will respond to treatment. You must be a ghost that took human form and came to put our efforts to ridicule. Please leave and never come back. Where is that old woman that brought this thing here? This evil creature! Please come and take your daughter! She is bad for our business.”

There were ten of us that resided in the fattening rooms for two weeks. All got fat but me. I was glad the women failed, but had one more problem to contend with. A very horrible stench was beginning to ooze out of my pubic region. I feared the risk of getting seriously infected. And I wondered if it were any crime to be a woman in the first place. A woman born to bear the brunt of horrendous customs. Tears coursed down my cheeks. That meant nothing else but that I cried out my tortured heart.

I did not say a word to my grandmother on our way back from Kana, being full of hatred for her. I had to sit with my buttocks inclined to an angle. You should know why now. And I don’t wish to be asked what angle because I was not there with a protractor to measure it. Well, maybe twenty degrees or thirty. I had a big shawl that had a combination of blue, red and white colours tied to my head in such a way that my ears were covered too. The fat woman had recommended that, saying it was to prevent air from entering through my ears and down to my private part, contaminating what had been done there. Women in the bus noticed from my swollen eyes and the way I sat, that I was returning from a circumcision centre. They did not waste time in showering congratulatory words on my grandmother and I.

“You are a real woman now,” said one of them to me.

“Now prospective suitors will be rushing in to seek your hand in marriage,” said another to me, full of smiles as she recounted her own day.

All her stories did not impress me one bit. I was so in a hurry to return to Lagos and let my mother get a piece of my mind for conniving with my grandmother to butcher me.

“It is our tradition,” my mother uttered to justify her act. “I went through it too”.

But she did not know that as far as I was concerned, that she had given up her right to life. I was just then waiting for the gruelling pain inflicted on me to subside sufficiently. My mind was already made up.

Humanity could not stop me from strapping the pillow so hard at her face. I kept telling myself that she couldn’t be the woman that carried me for nine months in her tummy and bore all the pangs of labour that proceeded full gestation period of the pregnancy that yielded me.

“Go to hell!” I dismissed voices of my conscience that were bold enough to dare to stop me.

She struggled to breath, but could find no air, as I watched life she once had slip away. Arthur, I had top do it. No regrets at all.


I Had To Do It was written by Kenechukwu Obi.

Copyright Kenechukwu Obi 2009.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Njuri Ncheke to help fight against female cut

June 25, 2009 By NATION Correspondent The Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders has resolved to use its immense influence among the Ameru to fight against female circumcision. The council has renewed its 1956 declaration that demonised the female cut and will impose a fine on any member of the community who either conducts or participates in the rite in any of the Meru districts.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Uganda: Invest in Karimojong Education

July 24, 2009

Kampala — THE UN children's agency, UNICEF, has urged the Government to improve the quality of education in the Karamoja sub-region, reports Daniel Edyegu.

The Moroto zonal officer, Sharma Narinder, said in an interview on Monday that the high school drop-out rate in the region was due to the poor infrastructure, long distances from homes to schools and rigid cultural practices.

Narinder said a recent UNICEF report on education in the sub-region indicated that Karamoja was lagging behind the national school completion average of 47%.

He explained that only 7% of the pupils in Nakapiripirit, 50% in Abim, 10% in Moroto, 6% in Kotido and 7% in Kaabong, complete primary school.

Narinder urged the education ministry to partner with civil society organisations to build more schools and provide scholastic materials to pupils.

He noted that female genital mutilation among the Pokot was causing a high school-drop-out rate among the girls.

"Most girls who are supposed to be at school are forced into early marriages. Gender disparity is critical, especially for the girls who are denied access to school at an early age," Narinder said.

The executive director of Reproductive Education and Community Health, Beatrice Chellangat, said the UN population agency, UNFPA, had allocated $300,000 (about sh640m) to fight female circumcision in the region.

Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter: The Family Tragedy of Female Genital Cutting

July 24, 2009

A scene in Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter,a powerful new documentary produced and directed by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, where a group of African women are gathered in a Philadelphia beauty parlor giving voice to opinions that they might be persecuted for holding in their home countries. "We were circumcised, but we pray our daughters won’t be," says one woman. "No one wants to see her newborn daughter faced with the blade," another agrees. Mrs. Goundo, the soft-spoken but strong-willed center of the film, (her first name is never used) sits nearby, silent yet wary in her dark headscarf and abaya.

Mrs. Goundo, is an undocumented immigrant from Mali petitioning for asylum in order to remain in this country with her infant daughter, Djenebou. She wants to protect Djenebou from the same fate that she herself experienced as a young girl: the ritual excision of her external genitalia. Twenty-two years old when the film begins, Mrs. Goundo was sent to the U.S. by her parents at age sixteen to marry a fellow Malian, to whom she had been betrothed when she was a child. Her husband is also an undocumented immigrant who has been in the U.S. since 1990. Because his own petition for asylum has been denied and he lives under the constant threat of deportation, his face is never shown in the film. In addition to Djenebou, the Goundos have two sons. Although all three of their children are citizens by virtue of being born in the U.S. — and thus not subject to deportation — the removal of one or both of their parents could present an impossible choice: allow their family to be torn apart, and perhaps never see their children again, or bring them back to Mali, where Djenebou would almost certainly be cut. Female genital cutting (FGC) — also known as female genital mutilation and sometimes erroneously compared to male circumcision — refers a range of practices involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. According to the World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million women and girls have been subject to FGC, mostly in Africa, but also in parts of Asia and the Middle East, as well as in communities elsewhere in the world. Mali, Mrs. Goundo’s home country, is one of the nations where FGC is most prevalent; it is estimated that approximately 85 percent of girls and women there are subject to genital cutting. The practice is nearly universal among the cultural group that Mrs. Goundo hails from, the Sonink√©.

The pain of the procedure may not even be imaginable to those who have not experienced it, but viewers vividly witness it in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film: the mass excision of sixty-two young girls in Mali. The filmmakers were not permitted to film the procedure itself, but they capture the scene several hours afterwards. A mass of girls walking stiff-legged and cautiously, some wailing openly, others looking dully forward, expressionless. FGC can have lasting, possibly fatal health consequences: infections, abscesses, a significantly elevated risk of serious complications during childbirth, an increase in infant mortality of as much as 55 percent, as well as profound psychological trauma. Moreover, the re-use of traditional ritual knives in multiple procedures can spread infectious diseases, including HIV. "When we lived in Africa we had no choice," says Mrs. Goundo, "but now I know this is bad."

The film alternates between scenes showing Mrs. Goundo’s life in Philadelphia and her slow progress through the immigration courts system, and footage shot in Mali, including among the Sonink√©. Rather than framing the question of cutting as a conflict between traditional cultural practices and Western condemnation of those practices, Attie and Goldwater focus on the ongoing, active debate within Mali and among Africans about the legitimacy and continuation of FGC; in these scenes, Malians speak for themselves, without the interpolation or interpretation of any Western commentators. Thus, instead of demonizing a culture for what is admittedly a horrifying practice, Attie and Goldwater succeed in showing how excision (as it is typically called in the movie) fits into a network of customs and traditions that have been passed down over generations. For instance, it is believed that unexcised women will have no hope of marriage, which could leave them economically vulnerable and socially outcast. (For comparison, Michelle Goldberg provides an insightful account of the debate between those who argue that cutting should be respected as a cultural tradition and those who see it as an affront to human rights here.)

Crucially, they also reveal the seeming inevitability of FGC in some areas of the country. One Malian anti-FGC activist recalls how her young daughter was excised by her in-laws without her consent, while she was away at work; even though she is "an educated woman," she says, she was helpless to stop it. It becomes clear that if Mrs. Goundo were to return to Mali with her daughter, she too would be unable to prevent the wishes of her parents, in-laws, and grandparents — the family network that would insist on the practice, and perhaps even shun Mrs. Goundo and her daughter if she resisted.

However, some Malians are increasingly questioning the legitimacy and validity of FGC, and publicizing its lasting health consequences. Although many associate the practice with Islam, an anti-FGC activist counters that proponents of cutting use Islam "to put a veil of respectability on the matter." To explore this claim, Attie and Goldwater film Imams who take a range of positions: those who support and mandate the practice, those who acknowledge that the Koran is ambivalent on the question, and those who actively oppose it — including Mrs. Goundo’s Imam in Philadelphia. They also explore the shifting social and cultural beliefs surrounding the custom. But it is clear that one of the chief justifications for the practice is to control and regulate female sexuality; one Imam, arguing for the necessity of excision, claims that without it, women’s sexual desire would be unmanageable and insatiable. As one anti-FGC activist says, resigning herself to what seems the insuperable force of traditional notions about women and gender, "It is something that we will continue to do without even knowing why."

Mrs. Goundo’s asylum hearing is set for March 1, 2007. With the help of William Maronski, her enthusiastic attorney, and a family friend, who helps with translations, the hearing goes well. A sympathetic immigration judge, Judge Rosalind Malloy, understands and accepts Mrs. Goundo’s difficult situation. Although the government attorney argues that Mrs. Goundo has technically passed the deadline for claiming asylum (asylum petitions must be filed within a year of arrival), and that Djenebou is protected as a U.S. citizen that cannot be deported, Judge Malloy rejects his claim. She asks him who he expects would care for the little girl if her parents were deported; he stammers in response. The implicit question is, why should separation be the price that a mother pays for attempting to protect her daughter from harm? Judge Malloy finds Mrs. Goundo eligible for asylum, although the government reserves the right to appeal. A little more than a year later, Mrs. Goundo finally gets her green card, guaranteeing her residency as she applies for permanent citizenship.

This happy ending is a huge relief; by the end of the film, you can’t help but care deeply for the fate of Mrs. Goundo and her pig-tailed daughter. During the screening where I viewed the film, the government lawyer’s assertion that Djenabou was in no danger because she could not be deported was met with a collective scoff. The danger of documentaries, however, is that they can make a singular example stand in for a typical case. In asylum cases — and especially in cases that involve gender-based violence — there are no typical cases. Indeed, a recent analysis suggested that the politicization of appointments to immigration courts under the Bush administration has resulted in the appointment of judges significantly less likely to grant asylum, leading to what some call "refugee roulette," where the outcome of cases is disproportionately dependent on the judge hearing the claims.

Moreover, situations like Mrs. Goundo’s — petitioning for asylum based on fear of harm to U.S. citizen daughters — are among the most hotly contested areas of FGC asylum jurisprudence, according to Lisa Frydman, Managing Attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings College of Law. In a 1996 case that is generally considered to have laid the groundwork for asylum claims based on gender-based violence, Fauziya Kassindja (her name was misspelled in the case), a 17-year-old native of Togo, was granted asylum by showing that she has a well-founded fear of FGC, and that her home country would be unwilling or unable to prevent it from happening. Later decisions in the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and the Federal Courts have built a growing, if inconsistent, body of case law, finding that past subjection to FGC could constitute a presumption of a well-founded fear of persecution; other decisions have ruled that FGC is not a one-time act, not only because some forms of it could be repeated, but also because constitutes ongoing harm, analogous to cutting out the tongue of a political dissident. Recently, then-Attorney General Mukasey vacated a 2007 BIA decision denying asylum to Malian woman who had been subject to FGC, stating in part that a woman need not fear the exact same persecution repeating itself in order to have a well-founded fear of future harm.

However, a BIA decision published in fall of 2007, Matter of A-K, which denies asylum to a parent (in this case a father) trying to protect his U.S.-born daughters from deportation to Ethiopia has some advocates worried that similar petitions may also be rejected.

Frydman believes that the designation "derivative asylum" — which is often applied to cases like Matter of A-K- and Mrs. Goundo’s situation — is blinkered and misleading; it leaves out the real harm that parents may experience when their relationship with their children is severed or interrupted, or when they are helpless to prevent a child from undergoing FGC. The potential injury is not only the irreparable damage that might be done to the child, she says, "This ignores the fact that if the parent opposes FGC, and it’s being forced on a child against the parent’s will, the parent-child relationship is interfered with in a way that might never recover." This type of emotional harm may rise to the level of persecution, Frydman argues— "even more so in cases where the mother has already undergone the procedure and knows the level of harm that her child will suffer."

Jeanne Smoot, Public Policy Director of the Tahirih Justice Center, agrees. She also notes that the Center has seen cases where relatives have threatened to go as far as to kidnap the child in order to subject her to FGC. "If you deport the parent," Smoot says, "that’s one fewer protector between the child and the possibility of being subjected to [FGC] — even in this country. The threat doesn’t end just because the child is here." To Smoot, the immigration and citizenship status of the child should be irrelevant in these cases. "All that should matter is that you have a child at grave risk and a parent trying to protect her," she says. "The price of that protection shouldn’t be that the parent is ripped apart from the child, who is forced to grow up a world apart."

Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter reveals that FGC does not just affect individual girls and women, it affects entire families. Family and group traditions are also what sustain it; it is preserved in part by the differential of power that often exists between younger and older women and men. And in the coin-toss of asylum hearings, families are what is at stake.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

UNICEF: Female Genital Mutilation

July 22, 2009 NIAMEY, Niger, 14 April 2009 Ten villages in western Niger have decided to put an end to female genital mutilation or cutting (also known as FGM/C), publicly calling all inhabitants in the Tillabery region to give up this practice, which threatens girls lives. We have decided to definitively put an end to female genital mutilation in our villages and to continue sensitizing neighbouring villages so they also give up the practice, declared M. Babobou Pana, leader of one of the villages. UNICEF is extremely pleased with this public declaration to end female genital mutilation in this part of Niger, as it is seen by Nigerien authorities as a severe violation of the rights of women and young girls, said UNICEF Representative in Niger Akhil Iyer. Genital mutilation has a negative impact on their reproductive health and their ability to go to school. This public declaration is an act of courage and an important step forward for the country.

Omotola: Shining Star in Africa

July 22, 2009 Omotola Jalade Ekeinde is one of Nollywood’s biggest stars. The African film industry is becoming a force to recognize as it churns out movies at a rapid pace. Nollywood stars are now being recognized in Europe and America with Omotola becoming one of the most recognized. Known for winning the Best Actress in an English Speaking Movie and Best Actress Overall awards in her homeland of Nigeria, Omotola recently visited America to support actress/ producer Chisolm Oz-Lee’s poignant movie “Lost Maiden,” a film about female circumcision. She was also honored by the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and received an award from the African Female Entrepreneurs for her charitable work with children and her contribution to African entertainment. Omotola also starred in “Lost Maiden” which was sponsored by SACAIDS, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about poverty, AIDS and other health issues impacting sub-Saharan regions of Africa as part of its health initiative. “I took the role in ‘Lost Maiden’ because I have definite opinions about female circumcision. Women of my generation were circumcised but my daughters are not,” commented Omotola. “I feel that women should be allowed to choose whether they want to be circumcised or not. Some argue that circumcised women are generally circumcised locally and not in hospitals thus get infections. If the argument is that circumcisions should be done in hospitals, then do them in hospitals. If it’s about pain, pain is part of life. Also, many of these women are circumcised as babies and don’t remember the pain. The real issue is whether women have a right to sexual pleasure. Countries that circumcise women do so to control promiscuity. This doesn’t always work. Some women go from man-to-man trying to capture what they will never find since their clitoris was removed. Others might feel oversexed so opt for the procedure. Again, it should be about choice. As times change, many African men don’t want their wives circumcised. As more African women are exposed to media, they too see they have choices. Thus, in some cases, tradition is falling away,” stated the talented actress who has starred in over 250 movies and won 22 local and international awards. Having arrived earlier than expected for the interview, I caught Ms. Ekeinde unawares. Without makeup she proved to be a natural beauty who is a strong, self confident, down-to-earth, centered, charming individual who made the interview pleasant. A graduate of the College of Technology where she studied Estate Management, Omotola’s main livelihood is acting, although she enjoys designing homes as a hobby. Ekeinde started her career as a model. “One day, a friend asked me to accompany her to an audition. She didn’t get the role but convinced me to audition and I ended up getting a part,” said the star whose husband Captain Matthew Ekeinde nick named her Omosexy. “I did a few movies but it was my role in ‘Mortal Inheritance’ that brought me acclaim and made me an award winning actress. Even to this day, “Mortal Inheritance,” is considered one of the best Nollywood films ever made in Nigeria. The film was about sickle cell anemia which is a big issue in Africa,” explained Ekeinde. “When I won the award it was during the big movie boom in Africa so people were attending movies for the first time in large numbers. The movie industry in Nigeria is growing. Yes, we still have problems; equipment is not always the best and as we churn out movies in rapid order more and more actors are thinking more about money than their craft. However, I think everything has to go through a phase before it rights itself, so there is great hope for Nollywood,” said Omotola who is also a pop and rock singer. “In the last few years I have turned my attention to music. I enjoy pop and rock which isn’t that popular in Africa yet since most Africans support traditional music or Afro pop, rap and some R&B. I use songs written by other Africans as well as write my own songs. I have a single out which is doing well on the Internet entitled ‘Feel All Right.’ Right now, I am working on my second untitled album. My plan is to do an album every 3 years.” Omotola balances her two careers singing and acting while still putting her 4 children and her husband first. “My husband is not a traditional African man. He did not grow up in Africa. Since he is a pilot, he is well traveled, open minded and a citizen of the world. But he is still a man. I am grateful that he understands show business and thus encourages me. We support one another,” remarked the industrious star. Omotola also writes a column called Omotola’s Diary which is featured in the Sunday Sun, the highest selling newspapers in Nigeria. Her popular column and her movies have attracted many fans, even robbers. “Robbers had me on the floor robbing me when they noticed my license plates and recognized me. They were so excited they returned all my possessions and even asked me to sing for them. They claimed they were big fans,” chuckled Omotola remembering that scary occasion. “I have a large fan base throughout the world. I even have fans in America now. Many know me via my movies and for my charitable work. I work for Save the Children in London, an organization that aids children plagued by famine, AIDS, and war. I also work with Link A Child which links orphanages and charities together to make sure they have a symbiotic relationship. I also did the UN Walk with President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Liberia’s first woman president,” remarked Omotola. For further information about Omotola Jalade Ekeinde see www.omotola.tv/simplyomotola.html. For info on “Lost Maiden” visit www.sacaids.org and/or contact info@tuffgig.com

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kenya: Doctors asked to stop female cut operations

July 21, 2009 By CYNTHIA VUKETS and MIKE MWANIKI Doctors and nurses were on Monday asked to desist from carrying out female genital mutilation in their clinics. Health experts and human rights activists said the doctors’ performing of “the cut” was making the harmful practice more acceptable. Cutting or excision of young girls’ genitals is seen as a cultural or religious rite of passage in some communities. The vaginal opening is sewn up after the excision, leaving a small opening for sexual intercourse, childbirth and natural bodily functions. “All the natural processes of the body are affected,” said Unicef child protection regional advisor Margie de Monchy. The head of the division of reproductive health, Dr Josephine Kibaru, said 32 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 had undergone the rite. Girls, sometimes as young as four or five years, undergo FGM in 28 African countries, as well as parts of the Middle East, India, Indonesia and in diaspora populations in Europe and North America. Although Kenya outlawed FGM in girls under 18 in 2001, it is still practised. Traditionally performed by midwives and religious leaders, FGM is increasingly being done by medical professionals. This has been dubbed the “medicalisation of FGM”. In a meeting that started in Nairobi which will end on Wednesday, UN officials, medical professionals and representatives from the ministry of Public Health and Sanitation are discussing how to end this trend. Long-term “The value of medicalisation is being undermined because it’s legitimising the procedure,” said de Monchy, responding to a question on whether having health professionals perform the procedure would be safer. “A healthy procedure for the cutting won’t stop the long-term effects.” Immediate side effects of FGM include bleeding, shock and sometimes death due to infection or heavy bleeding. Long-term effects range from cysts to leaking urine and increased child mortality.

Few Prosecutions for Female Circumcision

Only four people have been prosecuted for carrying out female circumcisions despite the passing of a new law in Egypt which makes the practice illegal. An estimated 140m young girls have been circumcised around the world. The practice involves their genitalia being partially or totally removed. Egypt is the country with the highest percentage of cases. Christian Fraser reports from El Minya, south of Cairo.

Girls' Hidden Agony

From July 16, 2009 Ben Packham AFRICAN immigrant girls are increasingly being forced by their families to have barbaric female genital mutilation, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has been warned. The minister has been told the painful ritual is almost certainly being practised here, and some girls may have been flown to Africa for the disfiguring procedure. Senator Evans received briefings "to respond to concerns that (mutilation) is increasingly being practised on permanent residents/Australian citizens". But community liaison officers said it was difficult to know how widespread it was. Concerns have also been raised with the minister over growing levels of domestic violence in African communities, particularly against Sudanese women. "One possible explanation for this is that women no longer have the protection of their extended families as they would have in their home countries," he was told. AN error in the controversial citizenship test has wrongly denied 21 people the right to become Australian. The error caused dozens of applicants to fail, but some resat the test and passed. The faulty question was in the pool of compulsory questions, of which four are asked in each test. Applicants were asked: "Who has the right to seek employment in the defence force and the police force in Australia?" The answer to the question -- that Australian residents could apply for both, pending citizenship, was wrong. In fact, the requirements of police forces vary in each state. The error went undetected from the introduction of the test in September 2007 until July last year. An Immigration Department spokesman said legal advice obtained from the Attorney-General's office was to let the results stand. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said: "A new and more relevant test will be in place within the coming months."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Female Genital Mutilation and the Samburu Tribe

July 20, 2009 Rebecca Lolosoli , chief of an all-women's Samburu village in Kenya, talks about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and how members of her community are advocating for change. Produced by Kate Cummings, a Peace Fellow with the Advocacy Project and a field correspondent for Vital Voices.

Friday, July 17, 2009

African woman defies death threats fighting circumcision

July 17, 2009

Hamburg - Her work has brought her death threats. Rugiatu Turay, 32, helps girls avoid the cruel and internationally condemned ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Speaking about the millennia-old practice, which affects 8,000 girls worldwide daily, is taboo in Turay's homeland Sierra Leone, as it is in many other African countries.

But she refused to remain silent. In 2003, Turay founded the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM), a women's rights group that fights FGM.

"It's my heart's desire to spare girls the brutal genital mutilation that I myself experienced," she said.

Turay was 12 years old when she fell victim to female circumcision, a procedure in which the clitoris and labia are removed with knives and razor blades. It happened 10 days after the death of her mother, when Turay was taken to a secluded place along with her sisters and female cousins.

"We were glad. We didn't know what awaited us. We thought it was an outing," she emotionally recalled in the Hamburg office of the children's rights organization Plan International, which backs AIM.

"It was horrible," she said. "My sister lay screaming on the ground. I was blindfolded. I resisted with all my strength because my mother had told me that no one should touch me there."

Turay lost so much blood that she was unable to walk for seven days. She was not taken to hospital and nearly died.

"I fled to my father and showed him my wounds," she said. Her father could not help her, however.

"It's almost impossible to talk about it. They want you to be afraid. But I have no fear," Turay said. By "they" she meant the men of Poro, a powerful secret society in Sierra Leone. The Poro men tried to intimidate Turay by laying supposedly magic objects in front of her house.

But she went to the police and asked the Poro chief, "What would you do if someone wants to kill your child?"

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), there are 150 million girls and women worldwide whose genitals have been mutilated. Most of them are in African and Arab countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Meant to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood, female circumcision is often associated with Islam. Neither the Koran nor the Bible mention it, however. But girls who have not been circumcised are considered "unclean."

The circumcisers, who are female, are highly respected and well paid. AIM does not try to publicly shame them, but to persuade them that circumcisions are a bad idea.

"We educate them about the consequences of genital mutilation and suggest alternative sources of income," Turay said, adding that she had converted the Poro chief by showing him a video of FGM.

Through Plan International, AIM also offers school seminars informing children of their human rights. Though an increasing number of girls are aware of the dreadful consequences of FGM, many are unable to overcome the power of the authorities and the circumcisers, as well as pressure from their families, and so have no choice but to flee.

"Since 2005, we've had a least three girls a year who ran away from genital mutilation," Turay said. They found shelter at an AIM centre in the African nation of Guinea, and two of the girls live in Turay's house in Lunsar, her home village.

"With the help of donations, we want to establish a women's refuge there, too," she said.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Museveni, traditionalists differ on female circumcision

July 15, 2009 Uganda - While the Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, criticized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as ‘interference’ with God’s works and then banned the age-old practice in his country, some traditionalists here are set to resist the government’s action. In view of the absence of a law to effect the ban, furious activists described it as mere lip service which would not stop traditionalists from continuing with the practice. Last week, Museveni told a gathering in the Nakapiripiriti district – home to pastoralist ethnic groups: Sabinys, Pokots and Karamojong, found in the landlocked east African country’s remote northeastern region, that a law was in the offing to ban the stigmatizing practice. "Now, you people interfere with God's work. Some say it is culture. Yes, I support culture but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information," Museveni said, after some elders told him that the practice was part of their culture. "The way God made it (female body), there is no part of a human body that is useless," Museveni told the predominantly peasant gathering, currently faced with hunger due to failed crops and most of the fields scorched due to prolonged dry spells, a harsh experience attributed to climate change. The ban coincided with the season for administering the practice targeting teenage girls (14 – 18years) and some traditionalists have vowed to carry on as their culture demands despite the support of the government ban by some of their own, mainly the literates. "We are aware of some people preparing to initiate some girls in the brutal initiation mid this month but the community decided that it was not useful, since women were not getting anything out of it, so the district council decided to establish an ordinance banning it," said Nelson Chelimo, chairman of Kapchorwa district. “The campaign to end the practice has been alive in his community for several years and that in the recent past, educated young women in Kapchorwa have shunned it, but their numbers are fewer compared to largely illiterate population caught in the brutal tradition. The district council's ordinance will now be submitted to parliament so that it can become law and subject to enforcement by the national police force. It is widely believed among the many tribes that a woman who married without first being circumcised would be stricken for life with various illnesses, but that those who have transformed from traditional to modern lifestyle have found those beliefs are really false. Last year, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution that called Female Genital Mutilation a violation of the rights of women, saying it constituted "irreparable, irreversible abuse", adding that the practice increases the risk of HIV transmission, as well as maternal and infant mortality. UN estimates that between 100 million to 140 million women worldwide have undergone the horrifying practice, which has attracted 1 million euro from European Union to empower African women to make inroads toward achieving the Millennium Development Goal number three. The 1 million (about US$ 1.26 million) Netherlands government funded initiative will mainly draw lessons from conflict and post-conflict hotspots in Africa, where women bear the brunt of gender-based violence (GBV), which includes sexual assault, rape and female genital mutilation. These lessons are meant to empower the continent’s women to confront the horrors of GBV and demand justice across Africa, Netherland Ambassador to Uganda Jeroen Verheul said while launching the project recently in Kampala. Pan African women network, Akina Mama wa Africa (AMWA) and the Netherlands government have picked two case studies - Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo - where women’s bodies have served “as temples of war” in past and present conflict. “Our bodies are used as temples of war, active or otherwise. We need to see prevention of gender-based violence prioritised through constitutional reforms and enabling laws. This is the one message that, for the next three years, should ring from Cape to Cairo,” said Ms. Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, AMWA Executive Director. The project will apply the lessons learned from the two countries to other conflict and post conflict areas, including Northern Uganda, where women have suffered acts of violence during the brutal 22-year rebellion at the hands of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, while some reports have also indicated that the government army also did orchestrate some of these acts. As the way forward, activists should demand legal reforms to earn justice for the victims. By UN benchmarks, Uganda is on course to achieve MDG No.3 for promotion of gender equality and women empowerment, but a lot more ground has to be covered to stop GBV. The Female Genital Mutilation Bill, for instance is currently before Parliament but Ugandan women have been working to push through other more daunting legislation that relates to gender - the Domestic Relations Bill, Domestic Violence Bill and the Sexual Offences Bill - all still stuck at cabinet level. This though is not an isolated Ugandan case but one that cuts across the continent and women activists want these fast tracked, passed and given real implementation according to AMWA Regional Director Christine Butegwa. “Let’s get away from lip-service,” Butegwa charged, stressing “the policies that are in place to address GBV should be implemented by 2011 and this is where governments must act.” She noted that “Uganda in the 1990s was a best practice case in terms of gender progress and policy formulation, but has somewhat stagnated on the legislation front,” adding “because of this, experiences of Congo and especially Sierra Leone are a good rejoinder that should jolt Kampala out of stagnation.” Like Uganda, the Sierra Leone story is disturbing. On the one hand, the country is conflict ridden but its culture also serves up another vice on the GBV menu - female genital mutilation - which happens in some of Uganda’s communities. Confessions of Sierra Leonean teenagers who have fled their homes due to the cut, to seek refuge at the Rainbo Centre in the capital tell of the pain, betrayal and risks that the practice has exposed them to: painful sexual intercourse, urinary tract infections, tetanus infections and a greater risk of being exposed to HIV/AIDS. Kampala - 14/07/2009

Mom's deportation order killed

By TOM GODFREY, Sun Media Tears of joy rolled down Roseline Awolope’s face as her deportation to Nigeria — and the possible genital mutilation of her young daughters — were put on hold by a federal court judge. “I am so happy that I haven’t stopped praying,” a weeping Awolope said today. “This is a great country and we are so happy that we don’t have to go back.” Awolope, 35, a single mother of four — Joseph, 10; Blessing, 8; Grace, 6; and Canadian-born John, 1 — were slated to be deported Thursday after her refugee claim was turned down by an immigration and refugee board. The case was appealed to the high court, where Mr. Justice Frederick Gibson killed the deportation order late Monday. Awolope claimed she would be murdered, her daughters would face female circumcision and all four siblings would be forced to undergo face markings with a hot knife if Canadian authorities sent them Nigeria. “Today is one of our happiest days,” she said yesterday. “The children are so happy that they are not going back.” Awolope, who is studying at Evergreen College to become a child care assistant, said her family plan to become immigrants and then take out citizenship. She arrived in Canada in March 2005 and filed an unsuccessful refugee claim, saying her daughters would be at risk of genital mutilation because they belong to the Yoruba tribe in Ondo state, where 98% of the members undergo the procedure. Her lawyer George Kubes said it was an emotional hearing at the 180 Queen St. W. court. “Even the judge said he couldn’t sleep at night when he looked at the case,” Kubes said yesterday. “It was very emotional.” He said Gibson allowed Awolope to stay in Canada until an appeal into the case is heard, and that can take about a year. “This is the third time a federal court judge has stopped their deportation,” Kubes sad. “The family is very grateful to Canada.” The case prompted dozens of calls and e-mails from concerned Toronto Sun readers, who called with offers of money or places for the family to stay. “I hope the justice system will come through and help this family,” said Veronica Jones, of Timmins, Ont. “As a young mother, I could not imagine the pain Mrs. Awolope is going through — not to mention what will happen to her if she is sent back.” “I am disgusted and I can’t remember ever feeling so angry over something I read,” wrote Kendra Chevalier. “It’s outrageous enough that the mom Roseline may be killed, but for the children to be at risk for facial markings and female mutilation?” “People like her and her family deserve a chance,” wrote Natalie. “They are obviously upstanding citizens that would be an asset to our community."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mom fights to stay in Canada

By TOM GODFREY, SUN MEDIA

A Toronto resident says she'll be killed and her two young daughters forced to undergo painful female genital mutilation if they're deported on Thursday to their native Nigeria.

Single mom Roseline Ijiola Awolope, 35, with daughters Blessing, 8, Grace, 6, and sons, Joseph, 10, and Canadian-born John, 1, are scheduled to be deported, following the rejection of her refugee claim by an immigration and refugee board.

The family and lawyer appeared in a federal court on Queen St. W. yesterday, calling on a judge to kill the deportation order on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Mr. Justice Frederick Gibson will deliver his ruling before Thursday.

Awolope, who has undergone female mutilation and face marking, said she fled Nigeria after refusing to have the tribal custom performed on her daughters. Her ex-husband's family was forcing her to have it done to the children.

"They threatened to kill me if I refused it for my daughters," she sobbed yesterday. "I had to run away from my country with the children." Awolope said she almost died from pain when the circumcision and face marking were performed on her as a child. Her face was cut with a hot knife and the mark signifies her tribe.

"I became infected and almost died when it was done to me," she recalled, weeping uncontrollably. "I don't want my daughters to go through this."

Her lawyer, George Kubes, said all the children will be subject to face markings in Nigeria.

Kubes said Awolope arrived in Canada in March 2005 and filed a claim alleging her daughters would be at risk of genital mutilation because they belong to the Yoruba tribe in Ondo state, where 98% of the members undergo the procedure.

"There will be severe emotional harm not only to the mother but to the children as well," Kubes said. "There's no doubt, she will be killed if sent back to Nigeria."

Dr. Samuel Ogunboye, a minister at Celestial Church of Christ, where the family attends, said Awolope sings in the choir and teaches Sunday school.

"They are a very nice family and they deserve a chance in life," Ogunboye said. "These are good people who will make a contribution to this country."

Patrizia Giolti, of the Canada Border Services Agency, couldn't discuss specifics of the case but said the family's claim was the subject of a hearing and appeal -- and they must now leave Canada.

"Everyone under a removal order from Canada is entitled to due process before the law," Giolti said yesterday. "Once individuals have exhausted all avenues they are expected to leave."

She refused to discuss the family's deportation arrangements, citing security reasons.

Church Promotes Alternative to Female Circumcision

July 14, 2009 Female genital cutting, or circumcision, is rampant in parts of Kenya. The procedure involves removing part or all of the external female genitalia and is typically performed on girls as a rite of passage into womanhood. Critics describe it as female genital mutilation, or FGM. In the town of Meru, Eastern province, the Catholic Church has come up with an alternative rite of passage for girls and young women. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Meru.

Saying 'No' to 'The Cut' in Kenya

July 14, 2009
By Debbie DeVoe

They call it "the cut."

Some girls are told their little fingers will be cut off but are assured they will grow back by the end of the three-week seclusion. Others are told they will grow a long tail between their legs if they don't get cut. Still more girls simply understand that whatever the cut is, it's a necessary part of becoming a woman and being ready for marriage. Not one fully understands that she will undergo an extremely painful circumcision.

"Female circumcision is a traditional practice that dates back hundreds of years in many African countries," explains Elizabeth Mwangi, justice and peacebuilding officer for Catholic Relief Services in Kenya. "Some Kenyan communities are now recognizing the human rights and health issues involved and are taking measures to end the practice. At the same time, they want to retain the important rite of passage and cultural education that are also part of the ritual."

An Age-Old Cultural Tradition

For most Americans, the concept of female circumcision is almost unimaginable. How could parents—and particularly mothers—have their little girls undergo such a procedure? What could possibly be the benefit?

In many other countries, however, female circumcision is as common and accepted as male circumcision. Each December in Kenya, girls of marrying age (which averages between 9 and 12 years old) are taken by an older female community member—sometimes by force—to a secluded location to mark the shift from childhood to adulthood.

The older women teach the girls traditional lore and important skills, including how to be a good wife and care for children. During the seclusion, the girls are also circumcised, often under unsanitary conditions. The practice takes different forms based on the cultural practices of a given ethnic group, and often leads to years of pain, which can be exacerbated by infections and childbirth.

"When we started the project, we would call community members into a meeting. As soon as we started talking about female circumcision, people would get up and walk out."
~Martin Koome, Project Coordinator

Some say that female circumcision encouraged fidelity when men left home for long periods to hunt for food or graze livestock. But as governments ban the practice and people become more educated about the risks involved—including possible HIV infection from contaminated cutting instruments and even death from excessive bleeding—communities are starting to question the rite's continued value in a changing world.

"In the past, it was geared for preparing girls to enter marriage," says Margaret Kanyaru, who has a 14-year-old daughter. "During that time, girls were not expected to go to school. Now HIV is also a danger." Girls typically drop out of school after being circumcised, deciding they are all grown up and need to focus on getting married—a mind-set Margaret and many other parents want to keep their daughters from adopting.

Changing Hearts and Minds

In 2002, the Catholic Diocese of Meru in central Kenya committed to increasing awareness of women's and children's rights. Concerned about growing incidences of domestic violence and girls dying during circumcision procedures, the bishop asked Catholic Relief Services to help develop an alternative rite of passage.
Community volunteers host a week of workshops.

"When we started the project, we would call community members into a meeting. As soon as we started talking about female circumcision, people would get up and walk out," explains Martin Koome, the diocese's project coordinator for the alternative rite of passage. "But we persevered. Now we're at the point that when we say we're having an [alternative] seclusion, we have to limit the number of girls who can participate."

But changing hundreds of years of cultural practice is extremely difficult and doesn't happen overnight. Previous initiatives implemented by other organizations had already failed.

CRS and the Diocese of Meru recognized that lasting success would require full community buy-in, which would take years to achieve. Together, they set out to engage every community circle in determining if an alternative to circumcision was a worthwhile endeavor and, if so, what an ideal alternative rite of passage would offer.

Over the next four years, girls, parents, elders, government officials, religious leaders of all faiths, teachers, boys, men of marrying age, and even traditional circumcisers who had an economic stake in the practice shared their thoughts about female circumcision and what was necessary for an alternative rite to succeed.

Community Acceptance

CRS and the Diocese of Meru took in all this feedback and then worked with community members for two additional years to develop a weeklong curriculum for an alternative rite of passage. Interested girls can now sign up in participating parishes to attend an alternative seclusion at a school, community center or church building, typically held over the long Christmas or Easter school holidays. Girls of all faiths are encouraged to attend, and the alternative seclusions are now strongly supported by religious leaders, government officials and Meru's Council of Elders. An older female mentor accompanies each girl, just as she would in the traditional rite.

During the alternative seclusion, volunteer teachers, nurses, doctors and social workers discuss with the adolescent participants a wide range of issues, including cultural lessons, health issues, relationship skills and the dangers of circumcision. Often, these discussions provide the girls with their first understanding of what they would have undergone during the traditional rite of passage. The workshops also focus on building the girls' self-esteem, teaching them to discuss sensitive issues comfortably and say a firm "no" to actions with which they disagree.

"We had some friends who were circumcised. They would tell us myths: You'll never get married, you'll smell, things like that," shares 16-year-old Caroline Kanana. "Then we came here and got that knowledge [of circumcision]. If it weren't for this project, we might go join them and accept whatever they did to us."

"Our grandmothers say we must feel the pain they felt to honor our culture," Caroline adds. "We need to have the courage to say there is no need to be circumcised."

Support from their mentors, parents and older sisters who themselves may have already been circumcised bolsters the graduates' resolve to remain uncircumcised.

The project has become so successful that parishes often have to turn away interested participants. At one seclusion in Kangeta parish, more than 500 girls applied for the 150 spaces available.

Men in the surrounding area are also changing their attitudes. When the project started, it was difficult to find any man willing to marry an uncircumcised girl. Due to increased awareness of the risks involved in circumcision and its impact on sexual intimacy, many will now only consider marrying a girl who has not been cut.

This shift, while extremely positive, makes it critical for communities to ensure that already circumcised girls are not stigmatized or shunned in return. The desire to respect past practices and women who have been circumcised is also why the project uses the term "female circumcision" instead of "female genital mutilation."

More Time Needed for Lasting Change

By September 2008, at the end of the second phase of the project, 641 girls had graduated from five alternative rites of passage in five parishes. CRS and the Diocese of Meru are now aiming to offer an alternative rite of passage to an additional 1,200 girls of all faiths across 30 parishes in the region over the next three years.

Parishes continue to report higher demand than can often be accommodated. During the Easter school break in April 2009, two parishes stretched their capacities to enable 334 girls to attend the alternative seclusions instead of the planned 300 participants. Additional funding would allow parishes to sponsor multiple seclusions simultaneously to serve all interested girls and families.

Eventually, the diocese hopes that community support will grow to the point that community members are willing to pay a small fee for their daughters to participate in the alternative rite, just as they now pay traditional circumcisers, which could make the project self-sustaining. For now though, as the diocese slowly shifts deeply held cultural beliefs, additional private funding is required for the initiative to expand and continue.

The risk of circumcision doesn't disappear after girls complete the alternative rite of passage. Family pressure, peer pressure and even pressure from a suitor can lead a graduate to change her mind. Uncircumcised adolescent girls are also at risk of being kidnapped and cut by relatives who disagree with the decision. In addition, uncircumcised women of any age are sometimes cut during childbirth, with mothers-in-law or other relatives convincing medical personnel to do the procedure without the patient's consent. These human rights abuses underscore the importance of the life skills, personal growth and increased self-esteem the girls gain during the alternative seclusions.

Winfred Muthoni, 12 years old, is attending the second-to-last day of her alternative seclusion. She sits quietly on a wooden chair with her hands in her lap, her small, slightly hunched frame swallowed by a tan fleece jacket decorated with galloping horses. I ask her what she'll do if she is later pressured to be circumcised. Her light-brown eyes turn steely, and she juts her chin forward. Then she answers simply but with palpable determination: "I'd just refuse."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer in East Africa based in Nairobi. She visited a seclusion for 158 girls in Kangeta parish in central Kenya.

Uganda People News: FGM cause for high population growth rate

July 14, 2009

The Member of Parliament for Tingey, Herbert Sabila has revealed that Female Genital Mutilation is one of the main causes of the high population growth rates amongst the Ugandan communities like the Sabiny that have this cultural practice.

This comes amidst a determined crack down on this cultural practice in the country and follows the tabling of private members bill on banning of the practice of FGM.

Sabila has told journalists at Parliament that FGM causes high population growth rates because it is partly the cause of the high fertility rates of the women in the communities that have this practice.

He says FGM causes high fertility rates because the girls undergo the cultural practice at about 14 years after which the girls are considered to be women mature enough to bear children.

Sabila says since the women begin having children at such an early age due to the influence of FGM, they are most likely to produce more children in their lifetime.

He says such high birth rates have caused the high population growth rates in districts that have communities that still have this practice.

He says however he is happy that that several stakeholders in the country are fighting hard to eliminate this cultural practice of FGM or female circumcision from Uganda.

400 surgeons stop carrying out female genital mutilation

From July 13, 2009

Rahel Mbalai is one 400 practitioners of female genital mutilation who have downed their implements in Tanzania.

Rahel estimates she carried out female circumcisions on more than 800 women over an eight-year period in the country.

But the 45-year-old, who was taught her livelihood by her mother, stopped the practice that haunts her after being educated on the effects of the procedure.

"I knew I was causing excessive bleeding, pain, psychological pain and long-term illness including HIV infection," she said.

Afnet, the anti-female genital mutilation network in Dodoma, has taken tools off women all over the region. Irish Aid, the government’s overseas development programme, part-funds the organisation.

Female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons..

However, Rahel’s husband forbade her from mutilating their only daughter.

Now the mother-of-four visits schools, clinics and communities to campaign against the procedure.

It is estimated more than 3,000 African women living in Ireland have been subjected to the procedure.

Experts working with new communities also fear young girls are being brought back to their parents’ country of origin during school holidays to undergo the procedure.

Volunteers go to rural townlands to help women suffering from fistula, a childbirth injury which causes incontinence.

For 32 years Menina Mhanjilwa was incontinent. She had given birth to a stillborn baby which affected her organs.

Menina was divorced by her husband, shunned by her community and rejected by her own family.

In 2004, an Afnet worker convinced her to undergo a simple medical procedure,which solved the problem.

"I was discriminated against, living a lonely life, now I communicate with others and participate in life," she said.

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Catholic Church in Kenya Promotes Alternative to Female Circumcision

From July 11, 2009 By Cathy Majtenyi Meru, Kenya Female genital cutting, or circumcision, is rampant in parts of Kenya. The procedure involves removing part or all of the external female genitalia and is typically performed on girls as a rite of passage into womanhood. Critics describe it as female genital mutilation, or FGM. In the town of Meru, Eastern province, the Catholic Church has come up with an alternative rite of passage for girls and young women. A group of grandmothers demonstrate how to serve food and which herbs to use to cure specific ailments. They are teaching the next generation the secrets of womanhood, like their mothers and grandmothers before them. These girls and young women in the Meru area of Kenya are going through traditional training of how to be a good wife, mother and woman, but with a difference: at the end of the process they have a graduation ceremony and receive a certificate rather than undergo a procedure in which part of their genitalia is removed. The modified traditional training, called the Alternative Rite of Passage, is a project of the Catholic Diocese of Meru and Catholic Relief Services. Coordinator Martin Koome says the project aims to eradicate the harmful practice of female circumcision while preserving local culture. "Today is the graduation ceremony for the girls," he said. "There will be songs and dance. The rhythm, the dance, the way it is done is like the way it was done in the past, but the messages have been changed to reflect what we would like the girls to learn currently." Girls and young women in several locations across the Meru Diocese spend one week away from their families in what is called "seclusion." They are taught lessons on anatomy, human rights, the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS transmission and infection, how to relate to their peers and parents, and other life skills. Marion Mworia is a retired banker who is one of the volunteer teachers in the Alternative Rite of Passage, which is usually held two or three times a year. "And we teach them, the taboos which Mameru used to have, that they are told, when you are not circumcised, you cannot be married. When you are uncircumcised you cannot get pregnant. When you are uncircumcised, you are not a grown-up woman," she said. "But we tell them these are just myths." Justa Mwenda, 16, wants to be a lawyer. She says the teaching given during the one-week seclusion has given her skills on how to express herself without fear and to stand up for human rights. She says she also learned a lot about the dangers of female circumcision. Justa Mwenda says the teaching given during the one-week seclusion has given her skills on how to express herself without fear and to stand up for human rights "I will try my best to see that my children or our children are not circumcised," she said. "I will even help those uneducated parents and tell them about these dangers of FCR so that my age mates or my friends will not be circumcised. I would like to have seminars, I will be organizing with others so that we can teach others how to behave, how to respect elder peoples, how to work hard so that we will be good children and parents in our future." Female circumcision is illegal in Kenya. In communities that continue the practice, school dropouts, marriages of girls as young as 12 years old and early childbirth can be consequences of female circumcision. Bernard Gituma is a member of the Meru Council of Elders, a body concerned with maintaining Meru culture. "Most of our daughters who did not go through the circumcision, most of them have gone through schools and even to universities," he said. "They are happily married. But those who went to the circumcision very early, they got married very young and their lives have not being improved." Justa Mwenda, her peers, and her family say the alternative rite of passage is a ticket to an empowered life.