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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Ethiopia, African women parliamentarians condemn female genital mutilation

Septemeber 14, 2009
By Tezeta Tulloch

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, – In a room filled with visiting dignitaries and members of the Ethiopian National Assembly, Tadeletch Shanko’s voice was whisper-quiet as she talked about the difficult subject of female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C.

Ms. Shanko had performed FGM/C on girls for the last 15 years and underwent the procedure herself as a girl, with devastating consequences.

“I lost seven of my nine children in childbirth,” she said. “Because of the scarring I sustained, I was not elastic enough. All seven of them suffocated inside my womb.”

Raising awareness

Ms. Shanko is no longer a supporter of FGM/C, as a result of a series of community dialogues on the physical and psychological harm caused by the practice.

She shared her story with the members of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) Women’s Caucus, which convened in Addis Ababa late last month to assess the state of FGM/C across Africa – and to learn from the strategies that Ethiopia and other countries have put in place to eliminate it.

A key objective of the visit was to mobilize parliamentarian and state support for the elimination of harmful traditional practices, with a particular emphasis on female genital mutilation. Also on the agenda were ways to raise public awareness of FGM/C through the media; customary laws to introduce sanctions against the practice; and potential avenues for collaboration among various stakeholders in society.

Powerful testimony

The parliamentarians heard powerful testimony from women and men whose lives had been tragically affected by FGM/C.

For Aregash Agegnehu, female circumcision – as the practice is also known – had never been a question of choice. “I was circumcised when I was a child. My daughter had to be cut as well,” she said. “It was inevitable.”

But since participating in in-depth community dialogues on the subject, Ms. Agegnehu no longer believes that FGM/C is a requisite part of being a woman.

“When I started engaging in community dialogue, I came to understand the harm of FGM, and now I have changed,” she said.

Cultural beliefs

Female genital mutilation is widely practiced by Muslims and Christians alike in Ethiopia, and official statistics suggest that almost three-quarters of women here have undergone the procedure. Forms vary widely by region but generally entail either a partial or total removal of the clitoris.

In the most severe form, infibulation, the labia are removed and the genitals sewn shut – barring a small hole for the release of urine and menstrual blood.

The predominant cultural belief is that circumcision is an essential pre-condition of marriage and motherhood. In many communities, an uncircumcised female cannot be recognized as a woman. Some feel that circumcision is a safeguard against promiscuity. Another common belief is that uncircumcised women tend to be inept at carrying out common household duties.

According to the World Health Organization, women who have undergone FGM/C are more likely to suffer from infertility, develop vaginal cysts and have recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections. FGM/C also increases the risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths. It has no proven health benefits.

Worldwide, between 100 and 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM/C. In Africa, an estimated 92 million girls aged 10 and over have undergone some form of genital cutting.

Changed attitudes

Many mothers fear that, without circumcision, their daughters will not fulfil the criteria for marriage or gain full acceptance in the community. Indeed, supporters of FGM/C often cite the fact that it is a long-held social norm. But such attitudes are changing. By the end of 2008, four of Ethiopia’s districts had publicly pledged to abandon FGM/C.

Mergieta Temesgen Ashebir, a religious leader who uses his influence to speak out against the practice, also spoke at the PAP conference. “According to the bible,” he said, “circumcision is only for boys, not for girls. There is no verse that states otherwise.”

Hon. Anab Abdulkadir, PAP Acting Chairperson and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament, pointed out the importance of understanding the root causes of FGM/C

“The demand is coming from where?” she asked. “It is coming from men. If there wasn’t a demand, there wouldn’t have been any supply. We have to … outlaw that demand.”

‘Not cast in stone’

UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia Ted Chaiban voiced the need to accelerate and harmonize efforts to abolish FGM/C in Africa.

“There are encouraging signs that the practice of FGM in Ethiopia is declining,” he noted. “We see this mission of the Pan-African Parliament Women’s Caucus as a major opportunity to catalyze and synergize efforts in Ethiopia, and across Africa, towards an intensified and coordinated affront on FGM.”

Added Hon. Fatima Hajaig, a South African parliamentarian: “Cultural norms are not cast in stone. They develop from day to day. Our cultural value system changes as we go along. This business of ‘in the name of culture’ – I can’t accept that.”

UNICEF Ethiopia has been collaborating with partners on a number of advocacy efforts toward abandonment of FGM/C, including training community-dialogue facilitators and disseminating educational materials in various media. The parliamentary mission is the most recent effort in this direction.