Mary R. Mugyeni and Safina Kwekwe Tsungu
Women suffer from horrific trauma and often die, but despite legislation several African states continue to tolerate female genital mutilation.
|Iraqi women attend a three-day conference on violence towards women in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil, some 350kms from the capital Baghdad. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images|
Different kinds of female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) take place across Africa. There are different motives and techniques. Regardless of the intent or sanitation and health conditions, the process used or the extent of the mutilation, FGM/C is a violation which causes debilitating traumas and sometimes death. It is a harmful and abusive practice which we must eradicate.
The common trait to all variations of mutilation is how it is used to create societies in which women are inferior. The international community has measures for this. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN in 1979. We also have the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), signed in 1989, and the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) which was launched in 1995. This year, the UN general assembly approved the creation of an 'Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women' – a new UN agency -UN Women. These texts, platforms and structures display the most honourable intentions, but discrimination persists.
In practice, states continue to have an unbelievable tolerance of such abuse: only 44 countries in the world, for example, have actually criminalised domestic violence. National and regional parliaments therefore have a big part to play in holding their governments to account and producing effective and rigorous legislation.
Senegal might be the success story. A law passed in January 1999 changed the penal code to make FGM a crime. The country also ratified the Maputo protocol – an African Union document pledging the end of FGM – in 2005. It is estimated that since 1997, 4,203 communities in Senegal have given up the practice, and that it could be close to eradication by 2015.
In east African countries, where most FGM-practising communities are located, there have been different outcomes and varying levels of success. In 2009, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution to end violence against women, which formed the basis for new laws in Kenya and Uganda.
Kenya enacted the Anti-Trafficking of Children Act 2010, aimed at protecting children against violence, and especially girls, many of whom are trafficked across borders to undergo FGM (often during school holidays). Prior to that, Kenya lost an opportunity to legislate against FGM when the appropriate provisions were struck out of the Sexual Offences Act – on the grounds that it was tantamount to "legislating against culture".
In Uganda, the most notorious FGM-practising community are the Sabiny, who advocate it on cultural grounds. Even though FGM prevalence stands at less than 5% in the country, all Sabiny women and girls are excised. The Ugandan parliament's approach was to pass a blanket law banning all forms of female circumcision, which came into effect in March 2010.
Then comes the challenge of turning legislation into action. Broad alliances have shown some successes. In Mauritania for instance, where it is estimated that 70% of women have suffered FGM, a fatwa pronounced in January 2010 and signed by 34 Islamic scholars called for banning the practice, asserting that it is by no means a religious requirement.
The route to eradicating FGM is still long and arduous. Our experiences show that the lack of women's involvement in the political process, both formal and informal, continue to be a major bottleneck in pushing FGM to the top of states' agendas. As women parliamentarians, we know this only too well. We have had a more arduous route to the seats we hold. The lack of women candidates in the Democratic Republic of Congo's upcoming elections will give you the starkest, most ominous account of how hard it can be.
As African parliamentarians, we are also faced with an additional challenge, which is to be recognised as a key agent for change by some donors and international organisations, despite the important scrutiny function that parliaments perform. Inter-parliamentary solidarity, between African parliaments, as well as with parliamentarians from other parts of the world, holds tremendous potential in this regard.
Last week, we attended an important seminar in Brussels organised by the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) on FGM and violence against women. The seminar was a gathering of 200 parliamentarians from Africa and Europe which resulted in a strong call to action, aiming to be the starting point of a concerted effort on behalf of African parliamentarians (including Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ivory Coast, South Africa, the Pan-African Parliament and EALA) to create robust legislation which addresses the threat of FGM.
As well as calling upon parliaments to give priority to FGM, we stressed the need for alliances outside of parliaments. We advocated for a community-based strategy which also works with civil society, traditional chiefs and religious leaders, youth movements, health personnel, teachers and local government.
As members of parliament and as women, we have a tremendous moral responsibility to deliver this. But the challenges are huge.
• Mary R Mugyeni is MP and second vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament
• Safina Kwekwe Tsungu is chairperson of women's forum of
East African Legislative Assembly
East African Legislative Assembly