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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sierra Leone Youth Call for an End to Female Genital Mutilation

November 30, 2010
The Huffington Post
Chi Mgbako

The perspective often missing in the debate regarding female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful traditional practice involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitals, is the voice of African youth. My recent experience conducting human rights workshops at schools in the Kambia District of northern Sierra Leone, a West African country where 90% of women have undergone FGM as children, underscores the need to focus on the viewpoints of Africa's youth regarding the practice.
I witnessed hundreds of Sierra Leonean students in sweltering lecture halls and classrooms highlight FGM's physical, sexual, and mental consequences. The workshops were a clarion call from Sierra Leonean youth to end the practice of FGM.
I conducted the workshops in partnership with seasoned Sierra Leonean activists from the anti-FGM organization Centre for Safe Motherhood Youth and Child Outreach ("CESMYCO") but still assumed it would to be difficult for students to speak openly about FGM. But they were eager and willing to discuss the practice.
My partners and I commenced each workshop by asking students to identify traditional practices that affect girls in their communities. We avoided any direct mention of FGM so that the students could initiate the discussion themselves. Almost immediately, and without hesitation, students raised the issue of FGM.
At the Kambia Islamic Secondary School, students highlighted FGM's harmful medical effects. They eagerly raised their hands to note that FGM can "expose girls to disease" due to the re-use of unsanitary razor blades, cause uncontrollable bleeding, have a "negative effect on giving birth," and even result in death.
When students raised the issue of FGM's health consequences, we asked how many students knew a girl who had died after undergoing FGM. Without fail, a flurry of hands would reach for the sky.
At the Madina Secondary School, a student confidently noted that she disagreed with FGM because it "can remove healthy organs." This statement was an insightful repudiation of FGM proponents who argue that female genital cutting and male circumcision are synonymous. They erroneously equate the clitoris, which is indeed a genital organ, with the foreskin of the penis. The correct male equivalent of FGM would be penile amputation.
The students also bravely referred to FGM's negative effects on healthy female sexual functioning. A student at the Kambia Islamic Secondary School stated that she disagreed with FGM because "it decreases sexual urge." At the Federation Junior Secondary School another student shyly said that she objected to the practice because "girls lose feeling." At the Kolenten Senior Secondary School one student boldly stated that FGM "can hurt the child physically and mentally because the clitoris is a sensitive organ connected to the mind." I was deeply impressed with their sophisticated notion of the physical and psychological layers of female sexuality.
The complicated effect of FGM on female sexuality is an often-marginalized aspect of the FGM debate. When I first met Sierra Leonean activist and CESMYCO director Laurel Bangura, who conducted the school workshops with me, she spoke openly about FGM's negative effects on female sexuality. Too often this focus is dismissed as a Western preoccupation. I remember Laurel speaking movingly about the older Sierra Leonean women who had undergone FGM in their girlhoods and still mourn the loss of a part of their sexual lives.
The students who raised the issue of sexuality were making a salient and oft-ignored point - they are forced to undergo a practice that has negative effects on their future sexual functioning at ages when they have no choice in the matter.
In addition to highlighting FGM's physical, mental and sexual effects, the students were also very concerned with FGM's impact on girls' access to education. In Sierra Leone, and in other African countries, FGM "fleeing" stories are common. Young girls who fear the practice will sometimes flee their villages - acts of courage that often disrupt their education. Several years ago, while working on my first FGM project in Sierra Leone, I met a group of young sisters who had fled their village in Magburaka to escape FGM. High-ranking FGM initiators had attempted to force the girls to undergo FGM and begin training to become FGM initiators, which would have halted the girls' formal education. To avoid this fate, the sisters ran away from their village to seek refuge with a human rights organization.
Like the Magburaka girls, student testimonials from our workshops reveal that children are under enormous pressure to undergo FGM even when they have grave misgivings about the practice. In one of the more powerful moments of our workshops, students at the Umuro Muchtarr Muslim Secondary School said they wanted "education" instead of "cutting." "You can go to the bush and [the FGM initiators] can teach you what they want, but they shouldn't touch you," declared a student. The rest of the students burst into applause. They were affirming that traditional rituals from childhood to adulthood should not involve harm.
The final school we visited was different. Gone were the hands eagerly flying into the air to discuss FGM. Gone was the shimmering confidence of the students in the previous schools. Laurel Bangura stepped to the front of the silent classroom and asked how many of the students knew a girl who had died in the bush after undergoing FGM. Many students slowly raised their hands.
Laurel asked, "Is it right for girls to die in the bush because they've been cut?"
"Maybe death is our destiny," one girl softly replied.
"Death should not be any child's destiny," Laurel answered.
I watched the students listening with rapt attention as Laurel made the case against the practice and medicalization of FGM. She spoke, with quiet power, of the human rights of women and girls to integrity and freedom from discrimination. The schoolgirls sat in their white hijab head coverings, like perfect rows of precious eggs, leaning in closer and intently listening with wide, open eyes. 

Senegalese Villages Abandon Female Circumcision

November 30, 2010

KOLDA, Senegal — Seven hundred villages on Sunday declared an end to female circumcision and forced marriages in the southern province of Kolda where the rate of practice is the highest in Senegal.
After a march by nearly 3,000 people from the region bearing signs and other effigies denouncing the rites, a colourful ceremony took place with traditional music, dancing and theatre.
Young girls from the region dressed in pink wraparound skirts and bright headdresses performed for the crowd "to show how important it is to the young girls that these practices be abandoned," said Molly Melching, head of the Tostan NGO.
The public denunciations come after extensive work by the government and non-governmental organisations in communities to encourage an end to the cultural or religious practice of deliberately mutilating female genitalia.
Tostan has been working in Senegalese villages for over a decade, spreading their work to countries in the region, giving education on human rights and health which allow villagers to "take their own decision" on the practice.
"The program includes men and their human rights so they understand also that this is about achieving the well-being and health and a better life for everyone in the community," Melching explained in a telephone interview from Kolda.
"It is not about fighting tradition, it is about helping people achieve the goals they have set."
Some 4,500 out of 5,000 communities have already declared an end to the practice in Senegal, which still persists despite female circumcision being declared illegal over a decade ago.
In Kolda, the rate of practicing the centuries-old practice of female genital mutilation was 94 percent, the highest in the whole country, says Melching.
"There is a very big declaration (of abandonment) of the whole department of Kolda for 700 communities. Many of these communities have already made a declaration before, but now they are all coming together with new communities" to declare an end to the practice.
Delegations from Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and other regions of Senegal attended the celebrations.
"It is a beautiful ceremony," said Melching.
According to UNICEF, the practice is a deeply entrenched social convention which millions of girls in Africa are subjected to every year, with religious beliefs cited even though it is not prescribed by any religion.
Tostan believes that with this kind of pressure it is important for entire communities to abandon the practice, to prevent stigma between villages on girls who are not cut and face becoming outcasts.
In Senegal, two types of excision are prevalent, according to a US State Department report.
These include just the removal of the clitoral hood, with or without removal of the clitoris, or the most extreme kind: excision of part or all of the external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening to allow only for the flow of urine and menstrual blood.
Female genital cutting leads to severe pain, infections, shock, hemorrhage, infertility and can cause massive problems during childbirth.
In July government reported the practice stood at 28 percent. Senegal aims to eliminate the practice completely by 2015.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holistic Approaches Key to Ending FGM/C

November 22, 2010

NAIROBI, 18 November 2010 (IRIN) - Narrow approaches which focus on individuals or appear to attack deep-seated customs are less successful at reducing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) than those that aim for community-driven change that addresses the complex social dynamics associated with the practice, according to a new study by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Families will and are abandoning FGM/C when the right conditions are in place - conditions that include the involvement of community and religious leaders, legislative reform and [ensure] that any discussion surrounding FGM/C is framed in a way that reinforces the positive aspects of local culture and builds community trust by implementing development projects that address local needs," James Elder, spokesman for UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre, which conducted the study, told IRIN via email. 

The report looks at highly promising approaches being used to support social change around FGM/C and how these strategies are being implemented in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal and Sudan. An estimated three million African girls and women risk FGM/C annually. 

In northern Sudan, for instance, where FGM/C prevalence is about 89 percent, community, state and national efforts to end FGM/C have included human rights education, introducing development activities to communities and a national media campaign to elevate the status of being “uncut”, and changing attitudes towards the practice. The country also has national and state policies to protect the rights of women and children, and efforts are under way to criminalize FGM/C. 

The country's `Saleema’ (Arabic for “whole” or “undamaged”) Campaign has helped reinforce positive social values which favour the well-being of children by leading with discussions about parental care and family pride and gently easing into more direct messages about FGM/C. 

Narrow approaches, limited success

According to Zeinab Ahmed, a child protection specialist with UNICEF Kenya based in the northeastern town of Garissa, narrow approaches to ending the practice have met with little success.

"Some of the interventions that have had limited impact are alternative rites of passage focusing on individual girls - girls belong to communities, and dealing with a girl as an individual has limitations if she then goes back into a community that still strongly believes in FGM/C. It's important to involve parents, aunts, uncles, elders - the whole community," she said.

According to the UNICEF report, a 2001 evaluation of alternative rites of passage - which involve substitute coming-of-age ceremonies that preserve local customs but eliminate FGM/C - concluded that they have limited effect unless accompanied by a process of participatory education that engages the whole community.

"Similarly, rescue centres for girls do not deal with the roots of the problem, and they are not sustainable... Can they really house all the girls who run away from FGM and early marriage? Why not approach this by changing how the community thinks about FGM," she added.

Ahmed noted that it was important to tailor responses to suit the various communities involved in FGM. "For example, the alternative rites of passage have worked well in Maasai communities, but among Somali communities, the approach needs to address both cultural and religious aspects of FGM, so community dialogue is the method used," she said.

Complex social dynamics 

"Among the Somali, it has been important to gently draw out the community to discuss issues around FGM... We might start, for instance, by discussing pregnancy and labour and the reasons why childbirth is so difficult for them, which eventually comes to a discussion of FGM."

Northeastern Kenya is dominated by ethnic Somalis, who practice infibulation - the removal of the external genitalia before sealing and leaving a small opening for menstrual blood and urine - almost universally. This method makes sex and childbirth particularly difficult.

It was important, she added, for the government to take leadership of FGM/C by enforcing existing laws and funding sustainable programming. She emphasized the need to speak to communities in their own languages through well respected community members acting as "facilitators of change". 

"The media has been very effective in creating debate on FGM; FM stations in local languages, featuring experts - gynaecologists, children's officers, education experts, religious leaders - on panels discussing the issue promote healthy and lively discussion of FGM," Ahmed said. "Women and girls are able to call in anonymously and say how FGM has negatively affected them. After all, it is the shoe wearer who knows where it pinches."

According to the report, while several countries have laws in place prohibiting FGM/C, legislation alone was insufficient to end the practice, which is closely tied to social identity and acceptance.

"Religion, tradition and culture are often cited by families as reasons for cutting their daughters," said UNICEF's Elder. "Many communities, for example, assume that FGM/C is mandated by religious doctrine, despite the fact that no major religion requires it."

"In some cutting communities, a woman can't be married without being cut," Ahmed said. "In Africa, marriage is the ultimate security, and in these communities, it doesn't matter if you have 10 PhDs... If you're not cut you are not recognized for your achievements and getting married is usually a huge challenge."

Ahmed said part of the approach to ending FGM/C among the Somalis in northeastern Kenya involved debunking the idea that Islam demanded the practice, as well as de-linking the practice from ideas about promiscuity and chastity.

Elder noted that ending FGM/C was a good way to eradicate other practices that lowered the value of women in their communities.

"Evidence from the report suggests that the approach used to support the abandonment of FGM/C can also promote and contribute to the abandonment of other harmful practices, such as forced and child marriage," he said.

Subtle attitude shifts

The report noted that although prevalence rates are still high in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, there has been a significant change in attitudes about FGM/C in all three countries, indicating that individuals are questioning the merits of these practices.

According to Ahmed, there has been a similar shift in attitude among Kenya's Somali population.

"We are seeing an attitude shift - for example, some Somali communities are moving from infibulation to the pricking or nicking of the clitoris," she said. "A small percentage have discreetly left the practice altogether. However, no form of FGM should be condoned." 

Support for Female Circumcision Declining in Africa, Study Shows

November 19, 2010
The Globe and Mail
Geoffrey York

Some experts thought it was so embedded in traditional culture that it would never change. But new evidence shows that African countries have made surprising progress in reducing the rate of female genital cutting, a controversial and often illegal practice that can cause lifelong injury and illness to girls and women.

The procedure is a rite of passage for young girls in many ethnic groups in Africa and some parts of Asia and the Middle East. Millions of girls are cut or mutilated in Africa every year. In total, an estimated 70 to 140 million girls and women worldwide have endured genital cutting.
But now the trend is shifting. In countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, female genital cutting has become less common in the past decade. And in other countries such as Sudan and Egypt, surveys are finding that the practice has declining support from ordinary people in many communities, thanks to intense educational campaigns.
A new study, to be released Wednesday by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, explains how these educational campaigns have succeeded in weakening the popularity of a practice that is considered a violation of human rights and a severe health risk.
The problem
Female genital cutting, also known as female circumcision or female genital mutilation, involves the removal of female external genitalia, or inflicting other injuries to the genital organs. It is widespread in many African cultures because of traditional beliefs that the practice can preserve virginity, reduce promiscuity, protect hygiene, assist fertility and make a girl more eligible for marriage.
The procedure can cause bleeding, infection, and severe pain during menstruation and intercourse. Because of the scars left by the genital wounds, women often have a heightened risk of obstructed labour, stillbirths, emergency cesarean sections, and fistula – a serious condition that causes chronic incontinence and often leads to abandonment by their families and communities.
In many African countries, up to 95 per cent of girls are subjected to genital cutting. It is illegal in some countries, but the law is widely ignored. Female genital cutting is also found in some immigrant communities in Western countries, including Canada, despite its illegality.
Girls who refuse the procedure – and their families – can face ostracism or even violence from their communities. Many families believe that the procedure is prescribed by religious doctrine, even though no major religion requires it.
The solutions
Opposition to female genital cutting has been growing rapidly in recent years. This month, political leaders from 42 countries called for a worldwide ban on the practice. A ban, however, will not be enough. It has to be combined with a sophisticated campaign of education in communities where the practice is common.
The report by UNICEF’s research centre suggests that there is no simple solution to the problem of female genital cutting. But the most effective strategies, it says, are those that frame the discussion in a non-threatening way, building trust and reinforcing the positive aspects of local culture. Successful strategies tend to involve legislative reform, national policies, media pressure, and respected community members such as religious leaders.
In Ethiopia, for example, campaigners have organized a series of festivities and public weddings for women who refused to undergo genital cutting. Brides and bridesmaids wear signs saying: “I will not be circumcised. Learn from me!” The grooms wear placards saying: “I am happy to marry an uncircumcised woman.”
In Egypt, villages have made public declarations of their intent to end the practice, with many villagers signing a public pledge to refrain from genital cutting. In Kenya, thousands of people have attended festivities to celebrate “uncut girls,” while dozens of practitioners who do the genital cutting have publicly taken an oath to abandon the practice.
The progress
There is mounting evidence of a shift in African attitudes about female genital cutting over the past decade, the UNICEF report says. “Individuals and communities are increasingly questioning the merits of these practices and would prefer, circumstances permitting, to not have their daughters cut,” it says.
In Ethiopia, according to the latest data, 81 per cent of women aged 45 to 49 had been subjected to genital cutting, but only 62 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had been cut. Younger mothers were nearly five times less likely to have a daughter cut than older mothers. And surveys found a dramatic drop in support for the practice. It was supported by 60 per cent of adult women in 2000 and just 31 per cent a few years later.
In Kenya, the rate of female genital cutting decreased from 32 per cent in 2003 to 27 per cent five years later. Surveys showed that support for the procedure among women had fallen by more than half, from 20 per cent to just 9 per cent. In Sudan, support for genital cutting among women declined from 79 per cent in the late 1980s to just 51 per cent in 2006.
Changing Attitudes
Opposition to female genital cutting has been growing rapidly in recent years. A new study takes a look at the prevalence of female circumcision among women aged 15 to 49, and how support for the practice among women in the same age group has changed over time.
Country% prevalence% support then% support now
Egypt91 (2008)82 (1995)63 (2008)
Ethiopia74 (2005)60 (2000)31 (2005)
Kenya27 (2008-09)20 (1998)9 (2008-09)
Senegal28 (2005)18 (2005)NA*
Sudan89 (2006)79 (1989-90)51 (2006)
* Data for later years is not available.
Source: Unicef, Innocenti Research Centre

Egypt Struggles with Female Genital Mutilation

November 19, 2010
Joseph Mayton
CAIRO: In June 2007, 12-year-old Badour Shakour died as a result of a circumcision operation. The death sparked a battle within the country over the use of the controversial medical procedure. Her death galvanized women and children’s rights groups to action, where they pushed for more stringent penalties against those who carry out female genital mutilation (FGM).
Shakour’s cause of death was an overdose of anesthetic, but her memory was the cause of an awakening that reached to the upper echelons of government.
In the summer of 2008, Egypt’s Parliament passed a law that ostensibly bans the controversial procedure. Not that it should have needed to legislate against FGM – it was already officially banned in the country during the mid-nineties – but with doctors continuing to perform the procedure on girls as young as five, Parliament felt it was necessary to intercede.
The new law stipulates a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($185) to 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($900) and a prison term of anywhere between three months and two years if caught performing FGM.
A doctor also could lose their medical license. In the case of Shakour, the doctor who performed the procedure languishes in prison after being convicted of manslaughter.
But, the rising number of deaths and injuries that have resulted from FGM, including a young girl who was left struggling for her life in November after the procedure, many Egyptians are fighting against the ban.
A 2005 report by UNICEF contended that 97 percent of single Egyptian women between 15 and 49 have undergone some form of FGM, although other estimates put the number at 70 percent.
Member of Parliament Mohamed Al Omda of a small opposition party, brought his three daughters to the floor of the People’s Assembly in protest of the ban last year. One of his daughters carried a sign that read: “No to any attempt to forbid what is divinely allowed. No to any attempt to allow what is divinely forbidden.” Two of his three daughters are circumcised.
Many conservative Muslims in the country maintain that the practice is condoned in Islam. The country’s Muslim Brotherhood has come under fire over many of their members’ denouncements of Parliament’s bill. The powerful Islamic group, and many Islamic scholars, argues that the ban is akin to “imposing Western ideals” on Egyptian society, which they maintain is based in Sharia.
“Religion does not prohibit or criminalize female circumcision,” prominent Islamic scholar Mustafa Al Shaka said to the local press shortly after the bill was passed.
The Brotherhood said that they are currently reviewing FGM in terms of its legitimacy within Islam and did not want to comment. Despite this assertion, last summer, their MP’s – who won one-fifth of the People’s Assembly as independents – were the most ardent opponents of the bill.
Progressive Islamic scholar Gamal Al Banna – brother of late Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna – says there is simply no precedent in Islam for this kind of practice. He argues that it was imported into society as a means of forcing women into the background of everyday life.
“It didn’t exist in Islamic history and those who argue it is Islamic or part of the Sharia are wrong,” the 87-year-old argued. “Religion does not subscribe to this kind of treatment that can cause death and other horrible results. It is un-Islamic.”
Al Azhar, the Sunni Islamic world’s most notorious religious authority, agrees with the elder Al Banna. In 2007, the Council of Islamic Research issued a statement saying that FGM and cutting are “harmful, have no basis in core Islamic law and should not be practiced.”
But Egyptian society remains stratified into opposing camps over the issue, says the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood Sectretary General Moushira Khattab. She believes that although the ban will remain permanent that it will take time to educate the population over the long term effects of cutting a woman’s clitoris.
“Nobody is going to say no to something that has negative effects caused by the procedure and in time Egyptians will see this,” she begins, “so the punishments that are being handed out against those who conduct this practice is vitally necessary.”
UNICEF estimated that three million girls in Africa undergo FGM annually, including in Egypt. The practice is a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989.
Although the Egyptian government has banned the procedure, it remains common, especially among the rural communities outside the capital Cairo and Alexandria. A 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, the majority of FGM procedures have been performed by trained medical personnel.
Medical workers involvement in the procedure, human rights groups and doctors in the country, argue is a major reason the procedure continues.
“We have to work slowly and cannot expect everything to change in one law. Egyptians are stubborn and if they believe this is part of their religion, then it is very difficult to convince them otherwise, even if they are trained doctors,” said a female doctor at the country’s Doctor’s Syndicate. She asked not to be named, as the controversy continues inside its doors.
With children in danger, the doctor argues that Egyptians must move forward in order to limit these sorts of practices.
“We are struggling as a country and until everyone is being educated, it is so difficult to achieve progress on anything, let alone FGM.”
Like so many controversial issues facing Egypt today, the seemingly endless battle between secularism and Islam continue to put opposing sides on the defensive. Al Banna believes that issues such as FGM will not be resolved within society until there is an open space for debate on all things, including religion.
“We need to be able to debate religion freely or else we will not be able to have people making their own decisions, instead they will follow their local sheikh as if he were the only source for reason.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Female Genital Mutilation Practice Still Common in Egypt

November 19, 2010
Mail & Guardian 
Aya Batrawy

Abdul Rahman, a 25 year-old Bedouin from North Sinai, is trying to change 2,000 years of tradition.

Through a local non-governmental organisation in a remote village called el-Gora, Abdul Rahman has met with local tribesmen to talk about a sensitive topic -- the ending of the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The procedure, which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, is estimated to have been performed on 91% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49, according to a United Nations' 2008 report based on Egyptian government figures.

Rahman said the tradition is hard to break because most believe it is a religious norm for both men and women to be circumcised. He admits that his own wife has undergone FGM and she will be the one to decide if his daughters will also have it performed on them.

He was given training by the Egyptian government and brought to Cairo to meet with religious leaders, who told him that the practice was not Islamic.

But carrying the message back home, Rahman acknowledged that he has not been successful at convincing locals to stop the practice on young girls.

Control her sexual desire
"Those who perpetuate the practice are often motivated by the belief that FGM makes a girl eligible for marriage, controls her sexual desire and prevents adultery," a new UN study stated.

Sheikh Abu Malak, a father in his late 20s from one of Egypt's poorest governorates Beni Sweif, said in a phone interview that "the government and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs are taking a position that this is tradition and not religion".

But Malak said that the official government position has not convinced the large majority of people to stop the practice. In fact, he said that his newborn daughter will likely be circumcised by a medical professional when she is around 12 years old.

FGM, while prevalent among Egypt's middle and lower classes, is not as widespread in the more educated elite, according to government studies.

The Egyptian Parliament criminalised FGM and banned medical professionals from performing the procedure in 2008.

"My opinion is that this is Sunna, the way of the Prophet Muhammad," said Malak.

Despite a religious edict from the country's highest Islamic authority al-Azhar, explaining that FGM has no basis in Islamic law and is a sinful action, which should be avoided, Malak represents a common sentiment felt in Egypt.

Although the procedure, if carried out correctly, is not particularly dangerous, there have been cases where young girls bled to death or were cut using unhygienic tools.

Lasting consequences
FGM's most lasting consequences are the inability of the woman to fully enjoy sexual intimacy and orgasms, while others have reported suffering mental trauma.

The UN characterises FGM as "a serious violation of human rights", which can cause severe, lifelong health problems including bleeding, problems urinating, childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

Most Islamic countries do not report high FGM figures, but Egypt and several other African nations continue to struggle to convince parents that the procedure is an outdated tradition rather than a religious practice.

It is estimated that between 70-million to 140-million girls and women have undergone the FGM procedure worldwide.

"It is truly a tradition, but a tradition we do for God," insists Malak.