Genital Mutilation

Female Mutilations Slow, But Only Gradually

Friday, December 26, 2003

Even though female genital mutilation is still rampant in Africa and other countries, the traditional practice is slowing under pressures from abroad and some successful local programs to educate people about the dangers of the practice.

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Taina Bien-Aime

(WOMENSENEWS)--On a day she will never forget, Soraya Mire expected to receive a "gift" in her native Somalia. She was only 13 years old and anxiously awaited her mother's promise.

The present turned out to be her worst nightmare. What she saw upon entering the doctor's house was a surgery room. Shock froze every bone in her body, yet she couldn't flee.

"How can you run away when the person who loves you the most--and is supposed to be protecting you--is right there allowing this to happen?" says Mire, who is now 40 and lives in Los Angeles, where she's working on her second feature film about female genital mutilation. "So, at the moment, you say, 'Maybe what she's doing is right.' But then you know that deep down in you, something awful is going to happen."

The pain under local anesthetic was so horrendous that she wanted to die. Infibulation, the extreme form of female genital mutilation, involved removing the entire external genitalia and stitching together the vulva, leaving only a small hole.

Practice Prevalent in Somalia

In Somalia and Sudan, 98 percent of women in Mire's generation were mutilated, most by age 5 because their mothers and grandmothers believed the younger the better, thinking the torture would be easier to forget. Mire's family waited so long because her father, who had seen the suffering inflicted upon his three older daughters, wanted to spare the other three. Her mother, driven by peer pressure, wanted it nonetheless.

Slowly but surely, cultural norms are changing. Although more than 90 percent of girls in Somalia, Egypt and Mali are mutilated, the practice is declining in other countries. In Kenya, only about 40 percent of women are mutilated. Most undergo Type I, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or Type II, which is the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora.

In northeastern Kenya, where the ethnic groups are the same as those in Somalia, Type III, infibulation, is very prevalent, says Ian Askew, senior associate at the Population Council's office in Nairobi, the country's capital. In other parts of Kenya, Type III is extremely rare, and the past two decades have seen a trend moving from Type II to Type I. More commonly, people are ceasing the practice altogether. Finally, the messages about dire physical and emotional scars are sinking in.

"In the past, a lot of messages were oriented around saying how dangerous it is to people's health," Askew says. "The problem with that is, people will practice a less severe form rather than stopping it. There's far more emphasis these days that it contradicts basic human rights for good health and bodily integrity."

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