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FGM rampant despite campaigns against it

Somali women activists rank Female Genital Mutilation as constituting the extreme form of violence perpetrated against women in Somalia. But their recent resolve to counter the practice is being challenged by Islamic religious zealots
Henry Neondo

One of the biggest issues facing Somalia since the fall of Siad Barre s government in 1991 is the continued practice of female genital mutilation, FGM.

Now on March 8th 2004, three Somali women networks launched the first nation-wide campaign to eradicate the practice of FGM and aim to specifically address the issue of religion in the fight against FGM.

According to Isabel Candela, Programme Manager, Oxfam, Netherlands, an international NGO that has worked with grassroots Somalia women organisations since 1995, says: although Islam does not advocate FGM, there is rising misconception among Somali religious leaders that FGM is a religious rite .

She says that this is not true and that if it were, then the practice would have been rampant in the Middle East, the cradle of Islam.

Yet evidence , she adds, shows that other than Yemen with a sizeable Somali populace, no other Middle East nation practices it, and where it is minimally practised, it is within some form of legislation. It is simply culture, period .

Unlike Somalia, without a central government since 1991, neighbouring Djibouti, Puntland, Ethiopia and Kenya all have some form of legislation guarding against FGM.

Candela says that for example, Djibouti banned FGM since 1995 and has had some counter measures against the practice for the last 30 years.

In Ethiopia she adds, FGM is only allowed in the age group past 15 years giving a girl the best option to choose with available information.

But she says it is a sad tale in Somalia where FGM is meted on girls as young as 5 years old. Only Puntland a province of Somalia now calling for its own independence speaks out against extreme form of FGM, but no law exists on the same.

The fight FGM Somalia initiative is part of a global campaign by Amnesty International, co-ordinated by Strategic Initiative for the Horn of Africa [SIHA], a regional women s network.

The campaign led by three networks of Somali women s organisations, We Are Women Activists, WAWA, COGWO, and Nagaad representing more than 100 grassroots women organisations took place simultaneously in Hergeisa, Bossaso and Mogadishu.

According to Amnesty International, in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen, countries where Somali populations are spread, FGM affects 98 per cent of Somali women, but only small and isolated efforts have previously concentrated on educating the broad Somali public about the disastrous physical and psychological effects of FGM on women.

Globally, an estimated 135 million girls of the world s girls and women have undergone genital mutilation and two million girls a year are at risk of mutilation-approximately 6000 per day.

Efforts to have some form of legislation in Somalia started way back in 1977 when the Somali Women's Democratic Organisation [SWDO], a governmental women's organisation and the Italian Association for Women and Development [AIDOS], founded an anti-FGM project designed to eradicate infibulation.

AIDOS provided technical and methodological support and SWDO was responsible for the content and direction of the campaign.

The projects however collapsed with the overthrow and the disintegration of the Barre regime and Somalia State.

But the new impetus heightened for mass public education of the disasters of FGM among the Somalis face opposition from the most unlikely quarters, religion.

According to Mariam Qawane, campaign coordinator, Novib Somalia, while FGM is not practised by majority of Muslims, it has however of recent taken a religious dimension.

Where Muslims practice it, religion is frequently cited as a reason, but those who oppose mutilation deny that there is any link between the practice and religion, but Islamic leaders are not unanimous on the subject .

The Qur'an does not contain any call for FGM, but a few hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) refer to it.

Adan Ahmed, an opponent of FGM cites a case faced by the Prophet. In answer to a question put to him by 'Um 'Attiyah (a practitioner of FGM), the Prophet is quoted as saying "reduce but do not destroy". Mutilation has persisted among some converts to Christianity.

Christian missionaries among the Somali populace have tried to discourage the practice, but found it to be too deep-rooted. In some cases, in order to keep converts, they have ignored and even condoned the practice.

Among communities practising it, FGM is often deemed necessary in order for a girl to be considered a complete woman, and the practice marks the divergence of the sexes in terms of their future roles in life and marriage.

The removal of the clitoris and labia ' viewed by some as the "male parts" of a woman's body ' is thought to enhance the girl's femininity, often synonymous with docility and obedience.

But now, Amnesty International says that it is possible that the trauma of the process and not mutilation may have this effect on a girl's personality.

If mutilation is part of an initiation rite, then it is accompanied by explicit teaching about the woman's role in her society.

It says that custom and tradition are by far the most frequently cited reasons for FGM. Along with other physical or behavioural characteristics, FGM defines who is in the group.

This is most obvious where mutilation is carried out as part of the initiation into adulthood.

Many people in FGM-practising societies, especially traditional rural communities, regard FGM as so normal that they cannot imagine a woman who has not undergone mutilation.

Others are quoted as saying that only outsiders or foreigners are not genitally mutilated. A girl cannot be considered an adult in an FGM-practising society unless she has undergone FGM.

According to Amnesty International, new knowledge of the range of health problems that can result from FGM are being gathered, thanks to some data on the short and long-term medical effects of FGM, including those associated with pregnancy that have been collected in hospital or clinic-based studies.

However, the incidence of these problems, and of deaths as a result of mutilation, cannot be reliably estimated. Supporters of the practice claim that major complications and problems are rare, while opponents of the practice claim that they are frequent.

The secrecy surrounding FGM, and the protection of those who carry it out, make collecting data about complications resulting from mutilation difficult. When problems do occur these are rarely attributed to the person who performed the mutilation.

They are more likely to be blamed on the girl's alleged "promiscuity" or the fact that sacrifices or rituals were not carried out properly by the parents. Most information is collected retrospectively, often a long time after the event.

This means that one has to rely on the accuracy of the woman's memory, her own assessment of the severity of any resulting complications, and her perception of whether any health problems were associated with mutilation.

The effects of genital mutilation can lead to death. At the time the mutilation is carried out, pain, shock, haemorrhage and damage to the organs surrounding the clitoris and labia can occur.

Afterwards urine may be retained and serious infections develop. Use of the same instrument on several girls without sterilisation can cause the spread of HIV.

More commonly, the chronic infections, intermittent bleeding, abscesses and small benign tumours of the nerve, which can result from clitoridectomy and excision, cause discomfort and extreme pain.

Infibulation can have even more serious long-term effects: chronic urinary tract infections, stones in the bladder and urethra, kidney damage, reproductive tract infections resulting from obstructed menstrual flow, pelvic infections, infertility, excessive scar tissue, keloids (raised, irregularly shaped, progressively enlarging scars) and cysts.

First sexual intercourse can only take place after gradual and painful dilation of the opening left after mutilation. In some cases, cutting is necessary before intercourse can take place.

In one study carried out in Sudan, 15 per cent of women interviewed reported that cutting was necessary before penetration could be achieved. During childbirth, existing scar tissue on excised women may tear. Infibulated women, whose genitals have been tightly closed, have to be cut to allow the baby to emerge.

If no attendant is present to do this, perennial tears or obstructed labour can occur. After giving birth, women are often reinfibulated to make them "tight" for their husbands. The constant cutting and restitching of women's genitals with each birth can result in tough scar tissue in the genital area.

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