Tag: anti-FGM

FGM stops when the holistic recognition of girls’ and women’s rights begins

Women attend a meeting for eradicating female genital mutilation in the western Senegalese village of Diabougo. (Pic: Reuters)
Women attend a meeting for eradicating female genital mutilation in the western Senegalese village of Diabougo. (Pic: Reuters)

Her name is Suhair al-Bata’a. The 13-year-old Egyptian girl dreamt of one day becoming a journalist. In 2013, she was taken by her father to Dr Raslan Fadl Halawa’s clinic to undergo female genital mutilation, also known as FGM. She senselessly died at the hands of Halawa. The doctor, who was initially absolved of any wrongdoing in December 2014, was recently sentenced to three years of “hard labour” for manslaughter and three months for FGM by an Egyptian appeals court. Suhair’s father received a suspended sentence.

This is the first conviction of its kind ever handed-down by an Egyptian court, even though FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008. While this may seem like a win on the surface, the reality is that practice of FGM remains endemic not only in Egypt but also in many parts of the world. FGM is known to be practised in more than 27 countries, mostly in the Middle East, Africa and some parts of Asia and Europe. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 100 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM, with an estimated three million at risk of undergoing the practice every year.

FGM happens because families and communities choose to have their young girls undergo this practice. A practice that denies girls the right to physical and mental integrity; freedom from violence; freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex; freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and the right to life when the procedure results in death, like in Suhair’s case. With all these rights denied, it’s almost inconceivable to think that medical or religious justifications for this vile practice still persist to this day.

The Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (Cewla), alongside other women’s rights organisations and campaigns, advocated for a ban against FGM which was successfully passed in 2008. The organisation also advocated to get Suhair’s case to court. Sara Katrine Brandt, international advocacy coordinator for Cewla stated, “As much as we succeed back then in getting a ban, many, many years of just not implementing the ban really shows how big of a task it is to eliminate this and that it is very embedded in the tradition and in the culture that this is the ‘right thing’ to do.”

Women’s rights advocates from Egypt and across the globe have long named FGM for what it is: a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women. FGM seeks to subordinate and control women. And in places like Egypt, women’s bodies have been consistently used as a tool for oppression.

Amal El Mohandes knows this all too well. She is the director of the women human rights defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, an Egyptian non-profit feminist organisation. El Mohandes argues that the Egyptian penal code normalises violence against women. When it comes to FGM, there are loopholes within the current law which state that FGM is a crime unless it was performed due to a medical necessity, which leaves the door wide open to interpretation. Whilst El Mohandes says the conviction of Halawa was a step in the right direction, she stresses that it is simply not enough. “Definitely, holding the perpetrator accountable is a step forward however what is really needed is a holistic approach.” For El Mohandes, a holistic approach in Egypt means a comprehensive national strategy to combat ALL forms of violence against women, be it in the public or private spheres.

Even though Nazra for Feminist Studies and other feminist groups want to directly help in crafting a comprehensive national strategy, they have been so far ignored by the Egyptian National Council for Women that has been tasked to work on this. None of the feminist groups that Nazra works with have even been consulted. El Mohandes says this is a lack of transparency on the government’s part at a time when Nazra’s experience in the field of gender-based sexual violence is urgently needed to halt violent crimes against girls and women. “Hospitals in Egypt are not equipped with rape kits, physicians and nurses do not know how to deal with survivors of sexual violence, the police themselves, even with FGM, they are not trained on how to deal with reports of such cases, they tend to sidetrack these cases or not even understand the fact that they are crimes of violence,” she explains.

Brandt agrees that a law banning FGM is only a tiny piece of a larger puzzle. Cewla recommends that the Egyptian government should “take strategic steps in order to be able to campaign and to let people know that FGM is illegal and to educate Egyptians on implementing this ban”. On this International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, many governments will pay lip service to stopping FGM. Egypt will valiantly point to the conviction of Dr Fadl Halawa as proof that FGM is being ‘dealt with’. But little will concretely be done to link this crime as one of violence against girls and women and getting at its root causes.

Until mentalities change radically to embrace women’s bodily integrity as a non-negotiable human right, we will sadly still have to underline that zero tolerance for FGM is needed, for years to come, all the while still seeking justice within corrupt judicial systems and with governments that don’t see women’s rights as important enough on their political agendas. Somali poet Hudhaifah Siyad sums it up best: “They called it circumcision, I retorted mutilation, They called it dignity, I retorted inhumanity, They shouted, “get out of our sight!” Sorry sister, none couldn’t hear my plight.”

Nelly Bassily is a member of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. Connect with her on Twitter: @nellybassily

FGM in Kenya: ‘Daughters seen as cattle for sale’

There can be few women who understand both the agonies and the economics of female genital mutilation better than Margaret, a grandmother in her 70s from Pokot, northern Kenya.

Her life has spanned the clumsy colonial efforts to ban the practice, which saw it become a cultural cornerstone of the Mau Mau uprising against British rule, right through to independent Kenya’s decision to reimpose the prohibition.

She has also put more girls than she can remember under the knife. When Margaret started, the tool of choice was a curved nail; more recently this has been replaced with imported razor blades.

The work, she concedes, is gruelling: frightened young girls would typically sit naked on a rock; once done, their excised clitorises would be thrown to the birds. For the cutters, or “koko mekong”, who can earn 2 500 Kenyan shillings (£18) for each girl, it is a livelihood.

“The cutters ask me: ‘If we leave doing this thing, what will we eat?'” Margaret says. “Tell the government to give us what to eat. If it’s just workshops then it will be no use. The circumcisers will not leave their career simply because they’re being told to leave it.”

The “cut” has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001. Despite this, a public health survey in 2009 found that 27% of women had been subject to FGM. Among some ethnic groups – such as the Somalis (98%) and Masai (73%) – that figure is much higher.

A second set of laws passed in 2011 made it illegal to promote or to facilitate what used to be known as female circumcision, and stiffened penalties. But changing the law was easier than changing practice.

Among communities such as the Endorois, who live near the picturesque Lake Bogoria, the cutting season has endured. But the ban has driven it underground, according to Elijah Kipteroi, the government-appointed chief of nearby Loboi, a role he describes as part policeman, part doctor, with a dash of marriage counsellor thrown in.

“In the old days there were preparations that you could see,” Kipteroi said. “Now, because of the law, the practice is carried on in hiding. It’s happening without ceremonies.”

The laws are still seen as foreign by many Endorois, especially the male elders, says the chief. They accuse him of criminalising their culture.

Underpinning the practice is a sharply divergent vision of the roles of sons and daughters. In Kenya, a dowry is paid by the groom’s family. As a result, girls are seen as a valuable asset to their families, if they can be offered for marriage in the “right” condition.

“The daughters are seen as cattle to be sold,” said Kipteroi, who added that a bride price would be typically counted in livestock, worth perhaps as much as 30 cows. “No one will even negotiate a bride price for uncut girls.”

On the surface, communities in places such as Loboi are broadly supportive of traditions such as FGM. Uncut girls, sometimes referred to as “raw” as opposed to mutilated “ripe” women, can expect to be shunned by their neighbours. They are forced to walk for miles to fetch water so they don’t “contaminate” pumps and wells; local midwives even refuse to deliver their “unclean” babies.

Reuben Orgut, a wiry man in his 60s with a sprinkling of silver stubble, one of the elders in Sandai, is unapologetic about FGM and the economics behind it.

“When I get this dowry it’s a way to support the other siblings. It means that when my sons also marry I have something to give out.”

He says the girls who refuse to be cut and married off are “stealing” from their own families. “It is not fair since they are a source of wealth. Some who have not been circumcised leave the family without us getting the bride wealth.”

However, not everyone is so keen to defend the rite.

Changing attitudes
Joseph Kapkurere is one of a trio of local teachers who have been trying to change ingrained attitudes among pupils and parents, even if doing so comes at the cost of frequent confrontation with relatives, friends and neighbours.

Kapkurere escaped the strictures that he grew up with when he went to college in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya where female genital mutilation is not common. “I was able to question why this happens and make up my own mind,” he said.

He married a woman from another ethnic group and resisted his relatives’ entreaties to have her undergo FGM. In Kapkurere’s home community he estimates that nine out of 10 girls are mutilated. As a teacher he found that schoolgirls would tell him that their parents were arranging for them to be cut against their will. He decided to start offering sanctuary during the school holidays which were often used by parents to have the girls mutilated.

“We thought at least we can keep them in school for longer, we can buy some time and subvert the parents’ plans,” he said.

And so now, during the longer holidays, dozens of girls will stay in the sanctuary of the school in Sandai to avoid the rite of passage.

Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage on April 19 2008 at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage on April 19 2008 at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)

The Cana girls’ rescue centre, set among the dark volcanic rock, aloes and thorny acacias north of Lake Baringo, is home to more proof of the limits of legislation in changing lives.

The Rev Christopher Chochoi, a Catholic priest, set up the shelter in 2002 after praying with a young girl as she died from the rat poison she had consumed rather than return to the violent and abusive old man she had been forced to marry.

Today, it houses around 50 girls, some of whom have fled forced marriages, as well as runaways or outcasts who have refused to submit to FGM and have been ostracised by their families.

One of them is Diana (16), who came to Cana two years ago. She walked for nearly three days through the bush to avoid being married off after being pressured into being cut – a brutal procedure that left her angry and disillusioned.

“I knew I was going to be circumcised because we were being pressurised but I didn’t know it was bad and would lead to marriage afterwards,” she said.

She had been expecting a “good adventure”, she remembers ruefully, and was ignorant of what was coming when she went to see the koko mekong with four friends.

“I regret having undergone the circumcision because some of my friends, after undergoing it, bled to death. Some of them had challenges when giving birth because of age and as a result they ended up dying while giving birth.”

Chochoi’s wife, Nelly, hopes that the experience of young women such as Joan Rikono, who stayed for five years at Cana, will inspire other girls. The 25-year-old earned a scholarship at a college and returns to mentor the rescue centre’s current residents.

Nelly hopes Rikono can show the community they are wrong to think of educated girls as lost or worthless.

Nonetheless, the job of persuasion is slow and dangerous. The centre’s matriarch came to face to face with the risks two years ago when furious and armed male relatives of one of the girls stormed into the centre. They demanded that one of the girls who was due to be cut and married off be handed over. A tall woman with a strong, clear voice, she stood her ground: “I told them we don’t have any wives here, just schoolgirls.”

Daniel Howden for the Guardian