Priorities Across Borders: A Global Front Against Genital Cutting
Thursday, October 21, 2004 9:55 AM

This article is reprinted from and with permission from the UN Wire / UN Foundation.

It may seem hard to believe now, but a decade ago in Cairo, as nations met to redefine population policy by putting women and their rights to good reproductive health care at the center of the debate, the question of how to deal with female genital mutilation was a very delicate one. There were both African women and women from Europe and North America who thought that it was not the business of outsiders to condemn a cultural tradition they did not understand.

Ten years later, the climate has changed completely, and African women –and men – have led the way. Across the continent now the practice of genital cutting -- usually slicing off the clitoris of a little girl and sometimes other external genital organs – is being not only condemned widely but also outlawed in some nations. This is not to say that the brutal ritual is not still practiced widely, because it is. But the tide has turned irreversibly against this tradition, however long it may take from place to place to put an end to it.

In two nations – Ghana and Egypt – I met recently with people who have led the battle against FGM, as most people have come to call the practice. How they built their campaigns, taking care to frame the cause within the context of their own cultures, is instructive. Similar stories are being played out in other African countries.

Significantly, women from the global South and North have now found common cause and common ground to discuss the issue without misunderstanding or rancor bred of insensitivity. FGM has begun to appear in industrial countries too, brought by immigrants from Africa, though this is not the primary reason for more North-South partnership. Donor governments have begun to respond. In mid-2004, Italy gave Unicef 1.8 million euros to help in saving girls from the practice. Joint work on the FGM issue reflects a larger, positive trend. That is, that when women can unite across and within cultures to focus tightly on an issue of this magnitude, they can effect real change, and often with the minimum of resources. The experience suggests that women could organize a similarly effective campaign against the spread of HIV-AIDS, which is now a woman’s disease in Africa and parts of Asia.

In Ghana, where FGM was categorically outlawed in 1994, a leading organization in the continuing battle to see the law enforced is the Ghana Association for Women’s Welfare, a nongovernmental organization operating with great dedication out of a room and a half of space in the compound of the Ghana National Commission on Children. GAWW is part of the Inter-African Committee, which has been campaigning since 1984 to eradicate what it calls “negative traditional practices affecting the health of women and children.”

At the GAWW headquarters, Florence Ali, the program director and acting president, and Clare Bandeng-Yakubu and Osman Chilala, who are volunteers, talked about the reasons women give for having girls’ genitals – the clitoris and in many cases the labia – cut off. Although Muslim religious leaders have joined the campaign to teach families that this practice has nothing to do with Islam, FGM is still pervasive in the country’s northern regions, along the border with Burkino Faso, where Muslims predominate.

In those border regions, where the incidence of genital cutting is thought to be as high as 79 percent among girls, people say that an uncircumcised woman cannot perform the ablutions required for worship. There are other myths -- that an uncut clitoris will grow longer and longer, resembling a penis, that a child will go mad if left uncircumcised and, most tragic, that a baby doesn’t feel pain. Girls who are spared in babyhood are likely to be cut between the ages of 6 and 12, the GAWW experts said.

GAWW has matched its extensive community education work with tougher actions, enlisting local police officers to arrest women performing the ritual, for example. School health teachers are asked for assistance in spreading the message that the practice is unsafe and unnecessary, as are traditional chiefs, district politicians and children, who are helped to form clubs against FGM. Brochures with gory illustrations are distributed widely, as is a very useful book of questions and answers about FGM. Publications remind Ghanaians that FGM is a criminal offense punishable by a minimum of three years in prison.

If anti-FGM campaigners in Ghana see their first challenge now as spreading education and getting a good law enforced, women in Egypt are still in a more tenuous place.

In Cairo, I went to see Marie Assad, a social scientist who has worked for decades against the practice of genital cutting in Egypt, were a staggering 90 percent or more of women have endured the practice in girlhood. Assad said that the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, which fired up strong NGO activity in the country, also fueled the first public discussion of genital mutilation. Around the time of the conference, CNN made a graphic, pathbreaking film about the practice in Egypt, as local women’s groups were preparing a conference workshop on the issue.

“What helped us all was that CNN film,” Assad said. “It created such a shock in the country that for the first time the practice was discussed.” After the conference, 50 people turned up for an informal brainstorming session and decided to launch a public campaign. They were backed by several American organizations and UNFPA. the United Nations Population Fund.

“It took us five years, in discussions and writing papers,” Assad said. “We found out we had to produce credible information, and that we had to listen to the people who do the practice. The big decision we made from the very beginning is that we are saying No to any form of the operation when we are talking to the women. We don’t call it ‘purification.’ We call the devil by its name.”

She added that the goal was to put FGM on every agenda involving women as a harmful practice. By 1995, they had organized a meeting within the ministry of health, the beginning of a sometimes up-and-down partnership with government. In that same year, a national demographic and health survey added a question on FGM prevalence. “This was the second shock,” Assad said. “The result came that regardless of education, regardless of class, there was 97 percent prevalency.”

The campaign soon got a significant boost when Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of President Hosni Mubarak, took up the cause. “She had the courage to put it on the agenda,” Assad said, adding that the president’s wife had to be careful “because it became a political issue and a religious controversy.”

Assad said researchers knew the practice predated Islam, but have yet to discover where it originated and how it took root so firmly in Egypt. Over the centuries women, believing the ritual be connected with marriagebility and chastity, became its most fervent advocates.

“Women in the Middle East are the custodians of culture,” Assad said. “So it’s their duty, even if it is painful. They suffer in silence.” As a shifting strategy to meet this reality, she said, the campaign does not seek to condemn women but to inform them, from the grassroots up, about the harm caused by FGM , and by staying silent in the face of its widespread persistence.

In order not to humiliate women untutored in the understanding of the clitoris and its role in sexuality, Assad said, she has adopted a posture of some penance. “We who are educated, because we knew better, we protected our daughters,” she said, and now “we are sharing this knowledge now because we robbed you of the right of knowledge.”

The advocates of ending genital cutting have been backed by some Islamic scholars and a ban has been upheld in the highest court. But the health ministry made what Assad sees as a bad compromise. Genital cutting is forbidden in law unless medically necessary, and this has allowed doctors too much leeway, she said. Who is to say that this practice is needed at all? The battle goes on.

Suzanne Mubarak continues to address the issue through the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood, which she chairs. Around the country, villages are preparing concept papers for further action, helped by the development office of the Coptic Church and the United Nations Development Program. Assad said that progress at village level has been heartening. “we are now working in 60 villages with Christian and Muslim NGOs and the government,” she said.

Hala El Damanhoury, an obstetrician now working full time at the New Women Research Center in Cairo, has learned that, as in other developing countries, a woman’s knowledge of how her body works may be extremely low or nonexistent. What most children in richer countries learn quite early in schools, children, especially girls, in many poor countries are never taught. A dearth of frank discussion in the media about sexuality leaves many young women unaware, for example, of what an orgasm means, and how that sensation is lost in genital cutting. If you can’t read, even what published information exists is out of reach.

“The main problem with women in Egypt is illiteracy, “ said El Damanhoury. “The second problem is health awareness. Women needs skills to increase their incomes and afford to find medical services. Then there is the availability of doctors who will perform services for women, which is very low. You can find doctors who will do genital cutting but not abortion, for example. Even women doctors don’t always help.

“The empowerment of women, the teaching of women, should be the main goals in this country,” she said. “After that, you can do anything you want.”

As for genital mutilation, Marie Assad feels a sense of confidence that the while it may take a very long time to end the practice, there will be no turning back now that basic knowledge in beginning to spread in rural villages and urban neighborhoods.

“We are at the right moment for bringing the issue to the forefront,” she said. “How far we go – that’s a different story.”

Cited from: Priorities Across Borders, A global front against genital cutting, Barbara Crossette, Countdown 2015: Personal Stories From Around the World, Media Center, UN Foundation, 2004.