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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Victims Taken by Surprise

Girls in communities where female genital mutilation is practiced often have no choice. It's a prerequisite to marriage, a rite of passage that renders them viable members of their society. On a chosen day, a circumciser might come to the village, or the girls are brought to a neighboring village for local festivities or traditional celebrations during which the mutilation can occur.

There's often no warning or means of escape, and girls tend to accept the tradition because it's culturally ingrained. However, an increasing number of girls are mobilizing to stop female genital mutilation and rejecting the practice within their communities.

More than an estimated 130 million girls and women around the world have undergone genital mutilation, a practice some say began 5,000 years ago. At least another 2 million are at risk every year. The mutilation, generally performed without anesthetic, may have lifelong health consequences, including chronic infection, severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth and psychological trauma. Some girls die, often from bleeding or infection.

Female genital mutilation is practiced in at least 28 countries in Africa, as well as in Indonesia, Yemen, in a few communities in other regions of the world and in countries with African immigrant communities. Many countries, including those that take in these immigrants, have outlawed or are working to ban the practice.

Women known as female circumcisers overwhelmingly perform genital mutilation. In Sudan, midwives typically carry out the tradition, and in Egypt, barbers often do it.

"It's a harmful traditional practice," says Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now in New York City, which works to protect the human rights of women and girls worldwide. "People sometimes attribute it to religion. It's not mandated by any religion. It's not sanctioned in the Koran or the Bible. It's very important for people to understand that it's a human rights violation."

Coming Up With New Adolescent Rituals

To help end the practice, midwives and traditional healers are encouraged to look into other avenues of generating an income. Also, new adolescent rituals in parts of Africa are replacing mutilation. Ceremonies continue to honor a girl's induction into womanhood, teach her to cook and become a wife and mother, but without the cutting.

In Senegal, a holistic and nondirective education program called Tostan, founded in 1991, has empowered villagers to lead a movement against female genital cutting. A staff of more than 600 Senegalese teach democracy, human rights, hygiene, health and management skills in national languages, said Tostan's director, Molly Melching. Since the first village made a declaration in 1997, 1,271 villages--more than 25 percent of Senegal's practicing communities--have abandoned the cutting.

"Many more declarations are scheduled within the coming five months in all regions, involving many different ethnic groups," Melching says.

Assistance from abroad goes a long way, too. The Godparents Association Inc. takes care of 40 to 50 girls in Uganda each year, says Rebecca Salonen, who coordinates the volunteer organization from her home in Bridgeport, Conn. By writing letters and offering monetary support, men and women of goodwill serve as "godparents" to young women at risk of genital mutilation. For $375, a sponsor provides for a girl's basic needs: medical care, uniforms and school fees.

In some communities, it will be another generation before the practice dies out, activists say. In others, it will take much longer. The shift has happened through grass-roots movements. "Outside pressures and intervention only strengthen people's determination to protect their special traditions, like FGM," Salonen says. "The culture can only be changed from within."

So it's best to make gradual but long-lasting changes. "Society is like a herd of cows," says Marilyn Milos, a registered nurse, founder and executive director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers in the San Francisco Bay area. "The only way to turn the herd is to move the cows, one cow at a time. The herd changes direction when every cow is turned. That's what it takes for society to change."

Susan Kreimer is a Houston-based journalist who specializes in health and medicine.

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