“Best Case Scenario” on Female Genital Mutilation
June 8, 2006This week, African women activists welcomed a newly published report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the devastating effects of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), while warning that its impact may still be underestimated. At a panel discussion June 6 at the Women’s Media Center in New York, the women highlighted the work of grassroots activists across Africa against FGM. The report “is bringing out issues that activists have been raising for many years,” said Dr. Isatou Touray, secretary general of the Gambian Committee on Traditional and Cultural Practices. However, she said, the study focused on the effects of FGM on women giving birth in health centers, while “seventy-five percent of the community do not go to hospital” and lack such life saving resources. Thus the findings may be a “best case scenario,” said Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now. The report shows that girls who undergo FGM are at greater risk of dying than other girls. Touray and Neuwirth joined Agnes Pareyio, founder and director of Kenya’s Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, and Faiza Jama Mohamed, Director of Equality Now’s Africa Office, to call attention to the work of grassroots activists across Africa against FGM. FGM involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and outer genitalia. Over 130 million girls and women worldwide are estimated to have undergone it. According to the WHO report, even partial forms of FGM leave women 20 percent more likely to die during or following childbirth, a figure that rises to 50 percent for women with full FGM. By almost all measures, the study found, FGM increases the risks of childbirth for both mother and baby. Because of traditional customs, religious beliefs, and a lack of understanding about how the body functions, grassroots activists fighting FGM, often a taboo subject, have faced an uphill battle. “Most of the parents don’t think that it’s harmful,” said Mohamed, but if you ask about health complications associated with FGM, “they say yes. They’ve never related this to FGM.” Noting that FGM takes place among Muslim, Christian and other religious groups, Mohamed said the practice has to do with “myths that are given out generation after generation.” After years of persistent work, however, things are changing. In Kenya, for example, Pareyio has been able to establish alternative rites of passage for Maasai girls, which include a traditional period of seclusion and cultural training in preparation for womanhood. The training stresses the importance of health and education to empower women to make their own decisions. Approaches in different countries include anti-FGM clubs in schools and education about gender inequality. In Gambia, traditional “bantaba” gatherings provide a setting for peer-to-peer advocacy where girls and boys discuss such issues as FGM, AIDS and early marriage. In Ethiopia, a couple used their televised marriage to celebrate their anti-FGM stance. It led to some 35 similar ceremonies within the year. Changes are also taking place within the African immigrant community in the U.S. For some women, “being here has given them the reason not to circumcise their daughters,” said Zeinab Eyega, executive director of Sauti Yetu, an African women’s organization. When friends or family members raise the issue, these women say, “We’re in a society where it is not done and I’d rather not have my children be the odd people out.” Mohamed notes that these advances depend on sustained grassroots activity and a “continuity of resources and actions” through such agencies as Equality Now’s Fund for Grassroots Activism to End FGM.