Female genital mutilation: an attack on human dignity
The 106th Conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, held in Ouagadougou, provided an occasion for a parliamentary debate on "Violence against women: Female genital mutilation". Headed by the President of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, Mr. Mélégué Traoré (see interview below) and moderated by experts from Burkina Faso and MPs from several countries, the purpose of the panel was to present various traditional practices, such as excision and infibulation, which affect millions of girls and women in over thirty countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and to make parliamentarians aware of the importance of eliminating them while respecting cultures and individuals.
Suggestions were made for action at the national, sub-regional and international levels. The participants agreed that legislation aimed at preventing, combating and punishing female genital mutilation had to be adopted in those countries where such practices persisted, and that legislation and programmes should be harmonised to ensure that girls from a country where excision was banned were not subjected to such practices in a country where the law remained more tolerant. They also stressed the importance of awareness-building campaigns and education, the retraining of female excision practitioners, the allocation of sufficient funds to support programmes, institutions and NGOs involved in efforts to combat female genital mutilation, and close oversight of government action in this regard.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union was urged to help set up, together with the African Parliamentary Union, a think tank comprising men and women MPs from those countries where these traditional practices are routine as well as from countries of emigration for their nationals, with a view to exchanging information on legislation, programmes and good practices to be promoted in response to this complex phenomenon. The IPU has undertaken to collect the texts of existing laws in this field and intends to help set up a database on the question, in support of coordinated action by the international community. This subject is also a matter for concern for the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to present a report on the "Traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls" during the fifty-sixth session of the General Assembly.
"One can be a good African and respect traditions without having girls excised"
Q: At the 106th Inter-Parliamentary Conference, which you chaired, you pushed for a panel discussion on excision and other forms of female genital mutilation. Why?
Mélégué Traoré: Because excision is an important question. Many societies in Africa are affected by the problem of female genital mutilation, in particular removal of the clitoris. This problem, which is widespread not only in Burkina Faso but also in a number of African countries and elsewhere, is based on religious and cultural grounds, that is, on tradition. What is needed is an awareness of the gravity and scope of the problem. There are ethnic groups in Burkina Faso who feel that a woman or girl who has not been excised has no chance of finding a husband. MPs today must become aware of this problem. In Burkina Faso, the State has created the National Excision Control Committee, a body headed by Mrs. Bassolé. It is a standing administrative structure; the staff are paid by the State and their main job consists of organising all activities to combat excision and mobilising the people who are well placed to help in the fight. At the start, some of these people, such as religious leaders, above all Islamic ones, and tribal chiefs, were in favour of excision; but animists still account for 50-60% of the inhabitants of Burkina Faso. In our tradition, initiation is very important, and as it turns out, one of the justifications for excision is precisely the rite of initiation, which for women automatically entails excision. In other words, excision is one of the key elements of the rite of initiation.
Q: Who can reassure parents who have their daughters excised because they fear that they will not find a husband otherwise?
M.T.: I have a reputation in my country for being a traditionalist because I am a tribal chief who presides over animal sacrifices. My children have local names, not Christian or Moslem names. I am telling you this because I believe that the main justification for excision is no longer valid today. I have two daughters and I have refused to have them excised. The people in the village have understood that there was nothing in the traditions of the Senoufo ethnic group - from which I come - that justifies excision. It was valid at the time of grand initiation, which has now disappeared and been replaced by the school. Only in part of the area inhabited by the Senoufo, in Côte d'Ivoire, does initiation - the poro or the cholugo - still live on. But even in this case, it is easy to see that a girl no longer needs to be excised to take her place in the Senoufo world. And what is true for the Senoufo is true elsewhere. We must start by explaining to everybody that the main justification no longer exists. I have always told the villagers to stop excising girls because excision has become meaningless. They make their daughters suffer for nothing because nothing in the teaching by the ancestors advocates excision. Not only will I tell my son that he can marry a girl who hasn't been excised, but I would say that today, in my village, all of the young people have understood that excising a girl doesn't necessarily mean that she will be more faithful!
Q: How do you explain the fact that this practice is still around?
M.T.: The problem is still around because the tradition is still there. In the 60s, soon after independence, we thought that such traditions wouldn't be around any more in the 70s. Today, we realise that you shouldn't destroy traditions - what you should do is reappropriate them and give them another meaning that is in tune with today's world and is linked to efforts to reaffirm the value of the African world. And this is possible without having to excise girls. This is where we must start. You can be a good African without having girls excised. Punishment is also needed. Not in villages, but I believe that excision is practiced in hospitals and doctor's surgeries, by State employees, and this must be punished, even if it is viewed as healthier. In Burkina Faso, the law forbids excision, which is deemed a criminal offence. On the other hand, in societies that apply it as a system, increased awareness is the only solution. Elderly women account for the majority of practitioners of excision, because in our world age is imbued with prestige and respect.
Q: This question seems to touch you deeply…
M.T.: I remember that my sister passed out the day she was excised. Today, I realise just how traumatic an experience it was for her at the time. There was no way I could know, because back then everyone felt that she was just a weakling. She was 16 years old and had lost a lot of blood. The fact that she passed out was viewed as a scandal. I know that it will take a long time, but I believe that we can manage to eliminate excision. Here in Burkina Faso, we have got results, thanks in particular to the contribution of the religious leaders, imams, tribal chiefs, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors.
Q: Are you prepared to urge your counterparts in the countries concerned to combat excision?
M.T.: I am fully prepared to do this and I call on the States in this part of West Africa to harmonise their laws on excision. This awareness-building campaign does not go against tradition. I, a tribal chief, am telling you this!
El Hadj Ibrahim Zougmore, Member of the National Excision Control Committee, Burkina Faso:
"A myth with no real foundation"
Those who perpetuate female genital mutilation have also invented justifications which are viewed as essential phases in the woman's socialisation from birth to adulthood. These justifications, which have no real foundation, are linked to six main areas: controlling the sexuality of girls and women, reproduction, the social integration of girls and women, health in general and hygiene in particular, religion and, lastly, the psycho-sexual conception of certain ethnic groups, who credit the woman's genital organ with evil powers. The religions which encourage the practice of female genital mutilation maintain that an unexcised woman is impure when it comes to religious practices, particularly prayer. Others say that even though the prayer of an unexcised woman can be accepted, it does not carry the same weight, in spiritual terms, as the prayer of an excised woman. At present, however, the points of view of certain religious leaders on this issue differ. Female genital mutilation constitutes a dynamic myth with no real foundation.
|Panel on female genital mutilation, 106th IPU Conference in Ouagadougou|
Mrs Viola Furubjelke, President of the IPU Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians and Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Swedish Parliament:
"A violation of children's rights"
The panel was a good initiative, because public debate is the only way we can change attitudes. As parliamentarians we have to use existing legal tools and find enabling mechanisms, or even adopt more stringent laws. The question was tackled head on, not only with regard to language but also in terms of the slides and video that were shown. Your immediate feeling is not to look at these very shocking pictures, but then you have to get a grip on yourself and tell yourself that in order to be in a position to change things, you have to face them and listen to the very shocking stories that people tell you.
Excision is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because most of the young girls are under the age of eighteen, and very often not more than four or five years old. And if the girls are over eighteen, then it is a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, because excision is one form of not recognising women's right to their own sexuality.
Mr. Mohammed Farouk Cassim, Member of the National Assembly of South Africa:
"Put maximum pressure on families"
We should make it the responsibility of the State to provide greater protection for the girl child. There should be very stiff legal penalties - twenty years' imprisonment - for anyone practising such forms of mutilation. We should also ensure that, prior to marriage, a girl is able to produce a certificate from a medical office indicating that she has not undergone genital mutilation. The idea is to put maximum pressure on families. All families want to make sure that their daughters are happily and successfully married. They might think twice about excision knowing that it might prevent their daughters from obtaining such a certificate.
In respect of the people who support those practices, whether they are community authorities or religious leaders, they should also be liable to judicial proceedings. Those who perform such brutal mutilations should also be held fully responsible before the law. We should try to obtain the support of the great centres of religious power, such as Rome and Mecca, which should unequivocally condemn these practices so that it is clear once and for all that they are unacceptable and are not countenanced either by religious leaders or by political or judicial authorities. We should produce films showing the hardship, the pain, the sorrow and the suffering of the victims so that people can begin to reflect on the absurdity and cruelty of these practices. For as we know, one picture is worth a thousand words. As a South African Moslem male, I would say that those who perform excision in the name of Islam should be denounced. We should condemn the people, countries and institutions that mutilate women and inflict such suffering on them, because these practices are not to be found anywhere in the Koran.
Mrs. Kaïdiatou Coulibaly, Third Vice President of the National Assembly of Mali:
"The onus is on women"
We have female genital mutilation, and especially excision, in our country. Associations and non-governmental organisations have been fighting for years to end this barbaric practice, but have not succeeded. The traditions live on, with the help of religion. In Mali, we women are all aware of the consequences of excision. The onus to solve the problem is on women, not men. In Mali, a country that is 90 per cent Moslem, people misinterpret the Koran, claiming that failing to excise girls is contrary to Islam. Many people supporting excision control associations backed down after a Congress of Islamic women on the subject. If we are to find a solution in Mali, we must go through the law. The government absolutely must get involved and introduce a genuine policy aimed at eradicating excision. Otherwise it will go on. Male and female excision practitioners will at least be afraid of the law.
Mrs. Félicité Bassolé, Permanent Secretary of the National Excision Control Committee Burkina Faso:
"Excision is based on a misinterpretation of the Koran"
Information is the most effective strategy. There is a need to create awareness overall: among men and women, and male and female excision practitioners. The emphasis must be placed on excision practitioners because if they refuse to practise, there won't be any more excisions. A law is therefore needed to protect defenceless women and girls. Fear of going against the law, which has been in force since 1996, acts as a deterrent. Our strategy works. There have been several arrests. Several other countries have adopted laws against excision: Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, which has now followed suit… But we must keep passing the message on, especially in the countryside, which television and radio do not always reach. More resources are also needed to build awareness among the general public, if only for travelling to remote areas. The cooperation of the imams and tribal leaders is very important. Excision is not recommended by the Koran: this is a misinterpretation of the Koran, a dupery, so to speak.
Mrs Marie-José Boucher Camara, Deputy Secretary General, National Assembly of Senegal:
"Explaining the dangers linked to excision"
Although we have made enormous progress, the pace has been slow, because we are up against a deeply rooted tradition which can only be overcome with a large-scale information campaign to explain the dangers which women and girls face. In Senegal, the caucus of women MPs joined forces with the women's associations with a view to raising awareness of the need to abandon this practice, which can damage women's health in both the short and the long term.
Mrs Rebecca Alitwala, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda:
"A crime against humanity"
Excision is torture. It is inhuman and it is very degrading to the girl child. It is something which we, as political leaders, must combat on behalf of the girls of our entire continent. I would like it to be declared a crime against humanity so that, wherever and whoever those criminals are, we can catch them and try them for violating human rights. The men must come on board, because the reason men give in favour of excision is that it makes women good wives. Women are forced to undergo all this suffering to protect men, but it is men who should be on the forefront of this fight, because it is waged for their benefit. Men should say that they do not want excised women. In my country, one tribe practises excision. Unfortunately, in this tribe, the Sabine, men first marry women who are excised and then abandon them and go to women who are not excised !
Mrs Florence Aya, Member of the Nigeria House of Representatives:
"A strong commitment by leaders"
This panel discussion was very useful because it showed the importance of a strong commitment by leaders. We really need strong legislation, and opinion-leaders, ministers, and MPs must speak openly, which in turn will help to build awareness among communities. We have a great deal of respect for traditions, but excision represents violence and suffering as far as our society is concerned. One thing which struck me very much was the video. When men see how cruel it really is, no one can oppose legislation to combat this harmful tradition. We need the cooperation of MPs and members of the Executive to stamp out this custom.
Mrs Marion Roe, Member of the House of Commons, United Kingdom:
"Fines and imprisonment for those who break the law"
Female circumcision doesn't just take place in the African continent, but it also occurs in other parts of the world amongst immigrant communities. In 1985 I introduced a bill in the House of Commons to prohibit female circumcision. In that bill there are penalties such as fines and prison for those who carry out these procedures. Although we have a law, it is very difficult to bring prosecutions, because the children themselves will not testify against their families.
Children are also being sent back to Africa for a "holiday", and the operation is being done there and then the children go back to the United Kingdom. Alerts have gone out to doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers to look for symptoms where a small child may well have had this procedure done on her, in order to try and prevent it from taking place, but also to bring to account within the law those who are taking part in it.
When I introduced my bill, in 1985, I had to educate my male colleagues who didn't understand what female circumcision was - they had never heard of it ! I also had problems with immigrant communities in London who harassed me because I was taking through this bill. They called me a racist, somebody who was interfering with their religious freedoms. I also persuaded the government to allocate substantial funds to set up an education programme within the immigrant communities to explain not just to the mothers but also the grandmothers the terrible thing that they were doing to young women and the fact that it was very harmful to them and that it would affect the rest of their life. This law has an impact. The young generations are now telling their parents and grandparents that excision is breaking the law and that they do not want to do it to their children.
Mrs. Ethiopia Beyene, Member of the Council of People's Representatives of Ethiopia:
"Genital mutilation practiced in nearly all religious groups"
Female genital mutilation is the major harmful traditional practice to which 75-80% of Ethiopian girls and women fall victim. It is practiced in all regions even though the degree may vary. Sunna (removal of prepuce only) and clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris) are commonly practiced in most regions and may account for 45% of cases. Excision and infibulations (excision of labial mafora) account for 19% and 10% respectively. Female genital mutilation is practiced in both rural and urban communities and by nearly all religious groups, especially Christians and Muslims. The major harmful effects include pain, haemorrhage, shock, urine retention, bacterial infection that may lead to septicaemia in its worst form, HIV infection, tetanus and even death. It may also bring gynaecological complication like loss of function during child-bearing, labour and delivery that may result in maternal mortality. Not to mention psychological and social consequences such as anxiety reaction, depression and psychosis.