Emma Bonino

BRUSSELS, Belgium (WOMENSENEWS)–Activists against female genital mutilation are already working in high gear this year as the issue reaches a breaking point in many countries.

On Feb. 6, UNICEF kicked off the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation with rallies throughout many of the countries where the practice is widespread including Senegal, Egypt and Sudan. The U.N. children’s agency operates anti-mutilation programs in 18 of the 28 countries where the traditional practice exists.

"We know what has to be done to abandon this harmful practice," UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman said in a statement. "Strong support from governments encouraging communities and individuals to make the healthiest choices possible for girls will save lives and greatly benefit families and communities."

Mali ratified last year the African Union’s Maputo Protocol that calls for the elimination of genital mutilation. This week the western African nation will be hosting a sub-regional meeting for leaders of French-speaking countries in Africa and activists in the capital city of Bamako to consider the protocol’s legislative implementation.

In Senegal, local human rights organization Tostan has encouraged tens of thousands of people to declare their abandonment of female genital mutilation, referred to as FGM.

In Egypt, the FGM-Free Village Model project brings together government and U.N. partners to encourage villages in the southern region to make public declarations against genital mutilation.

In Sudan, some religious leaders are using their authority to affirm that FGM is wrong and against the Quran.

The events follow two reports launched by the U.N. children’s agency last December on the harmful effects of genital mutilation. In October the U.N. secretary-general is expected to issue a major report on violence against children that strongly criticizes genital mutilation.

A Critical Juncture

Amid the surge in activities and reports, campaigners against the practice find themselves at a critical juncture.

For nearly three years, they have been focused on persuading African Union leaders to ratify the Maputo Protocol. But now that is done, application of the anti-FGM provision at the national and local levels becomes the gritty political challenge.

Of the 28 countries where genital mutilation is practiced, 14 countries have passed anti-FGM laws. But only Burkina Faso, Ghana and Kenya actively uphold those laws, according to the London-based Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development.

Countries faced international pressure to ratify the Maputo Protocol, but within their own societies they face the opposition of many traditional ruling classes to cultural change.

In 1997, Mali established a 10-year plan for eradicating the practice. The first step in the plan was to increase public awareness of genital mutilation as a health risk and human rights issue while the second half of the plan was to pave the way for a law against female genital mutilation.

"(This conference) is the result of long negotiations with the government as well as with the donors, as the issue of having a law against FGM is seen as very sensitive by the government of Mali," said Martin Schulthes, who is helping to plan the meeting on behalf of the Rome-based human rights group No Peace Without Justice. He estimates that more than 90 percent of Mali’s female population has undergone genital mutilation.

FGM sometimes entails the removal of the clitoris on girls between infancy and 14 years of age. It can also entail cutting the outer labia and sewing together the remaining skin so that only urine and menstrual fluid can escape.

Conference Springs from European Source

The conference will be the fourth since 2003 held in conjunction with No Peace Without Justice, which is supported by Italian member of the European Parliament Emma Bonino who for more than 20 years has been fighting against female genital mutilation.

Supporters hope the conference will not only help to propose model language for an anti-FGM law for Mali but also to gather enough political will in neighboring countries to do the same.

That approach brings together local activist groups with their government representatives. Bonino provides the political and financial support network of various European institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament. Bonino is currently working to secure European Parliament funding and support for anti-FGM lobbying during 2006.

"I can provide financial support and advocacy with the European Union, but I’m not the one who can go into the village," she told Women’s eNews. "It’s their fight, not mine, so since 2000 I have been working with a complementary approach."

Bonino says the real problem in combating female genital mutilation is finding a way to break the silence surrounding the practice.

"In some countries, leading and courageous women managed to do it, and managed also to gather public support from local leadership. If this happens, then things go very quickly, but there are countries in the Muslim world where silence is still the rule," said Bonino.

Calls for Monitoring

The African Union needs to set up a monitoring mechanism similar to that of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, said Efua Dorkenoo, founder of Forward, a London-based organization working on African women’s health issues. Countries that have signed the anti-discrimination convention must submit periodic reports to the United Nations on their implementation efforts and those reports are heard along with "shadow reports" from local advocacy organizations.

African countries, she said, have a poor reputation for monitoring the U.N. convention’s provisions.

"You need to look at why those countries aren’t reporting," said Dorkenoo. In Africa, she said, women’s issues are often intensely controversial and that can constrain local activist groups from taking their governments to task. She said strong local monitoring of the U.N. convention is also hampered by a lack of funds, which is why international rights groups are needed to run the fieldwork for shadow reporting.

Signed in 2003 by 37 of the African Union’s 53 heads of state, the Maputo Protocol calls on all member countries to implement a list of human rights guarantees for women and send the protocol to their legislatures for ratification. Article 5 requires that all forms of female genital mutilation be condemned and prohibited. Other articles call for the elimination of discrimination against women, the right to dignity, the right to life, the integrity and security of the person, the protection of women in armed conflicts, the right to education and training, economic and social welfare rights, and health and reproductive rights.

Last year Togo became the 15th and final country needed to submit its ratification of the protocol on strengthening women’s rights to bring the document into force. It became law Nov. 26 in all 37 signatory states.

Meghan Sapp is a European correspondent for Women’s eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.

For more information:

Emma Bonino–
International Conference on Female Genital Mutilation:

UNICEF urges end to female genital mutilation and cutting: