Focus on efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation
Sunday 22 February 2004


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AFRICA: Focus on efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  IRIN/Anthony Mitchell

An excisor with the tools of her trade

ADDIS ABABA, 4 February (PLUSNEWS) - Africa is aiming to eradicate harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) by 2010, campaigners said on the eve on the International day on Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, to be marked on Friday.

Speaking in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday, Berhane Ras-Work, the president of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC), called for a continent-wide zero-tolerance approach to combat FGM.

"Children in Africa are being mutilated alive in the name of tradition," she asserted. "We should not remain indifferent just because these acts are defined as tradition."

African leaders have already come under pressure to outlaw the controversial practice. The wives of at least five African presidents have also thrown their weight behind the campaign to outlaw FGM. The first ladies, from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali, Djibouti and Guinea, urged action to stamp out the practice, which affects some 2 million girls each year.

"Female genital mutilation is the most widespread and deadly of all violence victimising women and girls in Africa," Chantal Compaore, the First Lady of Burkina Faso, said recently.


The EU, for its part, has threatened action such as withdrawing aid from Third World countries which turn a blind eye to the practice or refuse to ban it.

In Europe, concern over FGM has mounted due to the influx of refugees and immigrants. In 2001, the EU passed laws condemning the practice but only Britain, Norway, Austria and Sweden have outlawed it. It is also banned in the US and Canada. Britain took a stand against FGM by passing into law the 1985 Female Circumcision Act, but so far no one has been prosecuted under it.

In Britain, the growing practice has prompted the British Medical Association to issue guidelines. Meanwhile, the country's National Health Service is paying for at least 200 operations a year to reverse FGM.

Some 15,000 girls are believed to be at risk in Britain, where FGM is officially classed as child abuse. In countries like Austria offenders who perform the operation can be jailed for five years.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has called on governments to impose a ban. It said governments had committed themselves to eradicate FGM under the Millennium Development Goals.

Carol Bellamy, the UNICEF executive director, said in a recent speech that six of the eight major goals adopted by all UN member states in 2000 pertained to children. "The 100 million women who endured female genital mutilation or cutting as young girls are living proof that the world has failed to protect them," she noted.

According to statistics, between 100 million and 130 million women have endured FGM or cutting, often without any anaesthetic or sterilised instruments. Many suffer serious side effects as a result. Untrained women, known as excisors, often perform the brutal cutting on children, leaving them scarred for life, in implementation of a centuries-old custom. Some will use the same knife on a succession of victims, regardless of the dangers of spreading infections.

The practice is ubiquitous in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, about 98 percent of women are estimated as having undergone FGM. It is almost as widespread in Ethiopia.

In the Horn of Africa, the operation usually begins with the young girl’s legs being tied to two women sitting on either of her sides. A third, at her head, will hold down her chest and arms. The cutting will then begin. Thorns from acacia trees are used to stitch up the wound. A small prayer is then said, after which the victim is told never to tell anyone what has happened to her until she marries. Immediately after the operation, she is taken home, where her legs are strapped together for a month while the wound heals.


Some girls, however, never make it into marriage. They either bleed to death or develop infections like septicaemia which can kill in a matter of weeks. Others end up infertile or suffering from bladder and kidney problems for the rest of their lives. The damage done to women as a result of FGM is epitomised by the fact that in the capital, Addis Ababa, an entire hospital is devoted to trying to repair such, often irreversible, damage, particularly fistula.

According to a recent scientific study published in the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, almost one in 10 women will suffer a stillbirth as the result of FGM.

But the pressure on mothers within Somali communities for their daughters to undergo FGM is enormous. Three types of circumcision exist. The first, the Sunnah (Islamic tradition), is the least damaging, involving the removal of the tip of the clitoris. The second, excision, involves removing the labia minora as well as the clitoris. The third is infibulation, where not only the clitoris and the labia minora but also the labia majora are excised. In this case, a straw is inserted into the wound and left there temporarily to facilitate the passage of urine, after which the wound is stitched up.

Infibulation, the most extreme form of FGM is also the most popular in Somalia. The aim of the process is believed to be to ensure the woman will be faithful to her future husband. Some communities consider uncircumcised girls ineligible for marriage.


The IAC, which is combating the practice in 26 countries, said FGM was now becoming a major vehicle for the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Berhane described FGM as "gruesome and heinous". In Ethiopia it is estimated that 60 percent of its population of 65 million are victims of harmful traditional practices and five-sixths of these are women. Four out of five women aged between 15 and 49 have been circumcised.

"Africa has the highest maternal mortality rates and the root causes for this sad reality lie squarely on social attitudes and practices that go unchallenged," Berhane said. "We need to take up the challenge and give priority [to] and focus on the eradication of FGM, early marriage, nutritional taboos, repeated and uncontrolled pregnancies, and rape," she stressed.

She went on to point out that women were often subjected to harmful practices due to their ignorance and "economic vulnerability", stressing the importance of women being empowered to reject such practices. "Women accept in silence the partial sacrifice of their body with all the attendant consequences and paralysing effects. Women have been hurt for so long and have been victims for too long," she concluded.



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