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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

African traditional practices: Progress has been made, but not yet enough

February 6, 2011
The Observer
Efua Dorkenoo

"Zero tolerance," a phrase first used in the 1970s in the US, is "a form of policing that allows no crime… to be overlooked." It is a way of "applying the strict and uncompromising letter of the law." Today, the world will celebrate the eighth anniversary of the international day of zero tolerance to FGM (a harmful traditional practice which involves the partial or total removal of female genitalia, undergone by more than 100million girls and women worldwide).

The clarion call to African nations not to tolerate one more mutilation of a girl was first made on 6 February 2003 by the late Stella Obasanjo, former first lady of Nigeria, during a conference organised by the inter-African committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children (IAC) – a regional network of African women activists working to eliminate FGM. Subsequently, 6 February was adopted by the United Nations as the international day of zero tolerance to FGM.

Since the 1970s, African women's rights activists have led the ambitious task of eliminating FGM. In their quest for justice they have have attempted to educate not just small villages but entire nations, engaging with heads of states, regional bodies, global human rights activists and international agencies challenging any misgivings that FGM could be a cultural right.

Undoubtedly as a result of these unyielding efforts, we have witnessed a seismic shift in global policy on FGM. Today there is less tolerance and wider recognition that it is a grave human rights abuse against women and girls which denies them their basic rights to health, bodily integrity, and sometimes even life.

But "lesser" tolerance to FGM will simply not do. When the national prevalence rate of the practice shockingly continues to be around 90% in countries like Djibouti, Egypt, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone and Somalia; when 10 African countries still have not yet criminalised FGM; and when communities continue to defiantly practise FGM in the open in countries that have laws banning the practice, we have a considerable problem on our hands. In 2010 alone we witnessed several disturbing incidents related to FGM that signalled not only a lack of progress but even regression in some cases.

In Uganda's Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts, elders prepared to mutilate more than 200 girls during the traditional December holiday season last year, despite repeated reports that there is reduction of FGM due to community engagement and education. Mass mutilations continue to be carried out in this region every alternate year.

Unfazed by Uganda's 2010 anti-FGM law, Sabiny elders proudly proclaimed to the media that they would carry on with mutilations of girls. Far from signalling "zero tolerance" for FGM, the vice-chancellor of Bukwo district, John Chelangat, was quoted as saying, "This is a very sensitive period and no politician will talk about abolishing FGM because we shall lose votes. Myself, I will not talk about FGM because I know this will land me in the political dustbin." While two circumcisors and one mentor were arrested for subjecting five girls to FGM, the fear is that many more girls may have been mutilated in the holiday season.

Unfortunately, the mass mutilation of girls during the recent December season was not unique to Uganda alone. Similar incidents were reported in Kenya's Kuria county, Marakwet, Eldoret and other locations where activists also feared that, in spite of the 2001 children's act in Kenya outlawing FGM, it was performed in medical facilities across these districts. Reports from Tanzania's Tarime district estimated that more than 5,000 girls were at risk of undergoing FGM last December and although it has been more than 12 years since Tanzania prohibited FGM, the police are still reluctant to arrest and prosecute perpetrators. As a result only a handful of cases have reached the courts in recent years.

Apart from the indefensible and shocking general lack of political will to end FGM, another worrying trend is the lack of support given to and backlash faced by anti-FGM activists. In October 2010, Gambian anti-FGM activists Isatou Touray and Amie Bojang-Sissoho were arrested for allegedly embezzling funds despite an earlier investigation that cleared them of such allegations and were released on bail only after considerable international pressure.

It is crucial that we don't lose ground but build on the decades of hard work of anti-FGM activists in curtailing the practice across Africa. This 6 February it is time that governments finally take proud ownership of the concept of zero tolerance for FGM. As recent incidents have clearly indicated, we need more concerted efforts from politicians, law enforcement and the justice system to end the practice.

Since mass mutilation in pockets of high-risk areas during the holiday season is a recurring theme in many countries, we will need planned interventions well ahead of each December. Law enforcement must employ creative strategies such as undercover investigations of medical facilities which provide FGM and temporarily increase the concentration of police forces in high-risk areas.

Governments must allocate additional resources to increase transportation for law enforcement, raise awareness among girls, make ample shelter arrangements for girls fleeing FGM, use community radio and local media to warn practising communities that FGM will not be tolerated, publicise arrests and prosecutions and equip courts to handle cases efficiently. Zero tolerance for FGM can become a reality only if all appropriate sectors of government and civil society prioritise the protection of women and girls from FGM and coordinate their efforts in a proactive, sustained and planned manner.