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Fighting female genital mutilation in Africa with information

April 1, 2011

Last year, 16-year-old Aida made a startling discovery: as a young girl, she had had part of her clitoris removed. The Senegalese teenager is only one among an estimated 135 million African girls and women who have undergone the dangerous and painful procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM) — or female circumcision — without their consent, and even often without their knowledge.

What is female genital mutilation?

FGM refers to practices and procedures consisting of partial or total removal or alteration of female genitalia. It is usually practiced on very young girls. Three main types of FGM are being practiced throughout West Africa:

  • excision of the prepuce, with or without removal of all or part of the clitoris, which accounts for about 80% of all cases. 
  • removal of the clitoris with excision of the labia minora 
  • excision of the external genitalia and narrowing of the vaginal opening. This type of FGM, known as infibulation, is extremely rare in Western Africa.

While the practice is commonly called female circumcision, opponents of these practices use the terms female genital mutilation or female genital cutting. FGM ranges from the partial or complete removal of the clitoris or labia minora, to the cutting of the labia majora to create raw surfaces, which are then stitched or held together to cover the vagina when they heal. While the procedures are increasingly performed by a doctor at the girls’ homes, in many cases they are carried out by an older woman or a traditional midwife, often under unsanitary conditions and without anaesthetic. A traditional practice in a number of cultures, the operation is usually performed at a very young age. Those who practice FGM believe that it improves feminine hygiene and helps to eliminate disease. It is also thought to be a way to preserve family honour as well as a girl’s virginity and marriageability.

In many communities, it is a criteria for social acceptance. FGM predates both Islam and Christianity and there is no consensus or clear understanding of where or why the practice began. While male circumcision is a commandment under both Judaism and Islam, female circumcision is not required or supported by any major religion. But it is condemned by medical and human rights organizations. FGM has a number of serious side effects including a risk of excessive bleeding, serious infection, exposure to disease (such as HIV), and even death. In the long term, some women experience chronic problems with urination, menstruation, sexual relations, infertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. Traumatism or depression can also result.

Although many national laws and international conventions exist to protect women’s rights to health and body integrity, FGM is still common in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in West Africa. It is also frequent in some Middle Eastern countries, as well as in parts of Asia, the Americas, and Europe, mainly among immigrant communities. As many as 2 million girls a year — approximately 6 000 per day — still undergo the procedure, which is illegal in most Western countries, including Canada.

In most, if not all cases, FGM is performed with the agreement of parents and other elder family members. Often, it is older women who maintain the practice as they consider themselves guardians of cultural values and beliefs. Because of societal norms that discourage talk about sex, many women are not aware that they’ve undergone the procedure until much later in life. “My parents never told me,” says Aida. “All subjects related to sex are prohibited [in my culture], and you can’t discuss the matter with older people.”

Opening up the discussion

Increasingly, however, FGM is becoming a subject of open discussion, part of attempts to eliminate the practice. For example, Aida first learned that she’d undergone the practice through her participation in a research project funded by the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian Crown corporation.

Since last year groups of youth — girls and boys aged 15 to 25 — have been working with a team of West African researchers under the leadership of Environmental Development Action in the Third World (ENDA), an international non-governmental organization (NGO), based in Senegal.

The project is unique: the researchers are looking at how modern communication tools such as mobile phones, the Internet, and community radio can be enlisted in the fight against FGM in three French-speaking, West-African countries — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal.

This is the first time that these communication tools, often referred to as information and communication technologies (ICTs), are being used to speed up FGM eradication.

In fact, ICTs are bringing tremendous change in Africa. The continent has embraced mobile technology, “leapfrogging” over fixed-line phone networks that are difficult and costly to install and maintain in rural areas. Telecentres set up in remote communities across Africa are now giving geographically isolated people access to computers, the Internet, and community radio.

In Africa as elsewhere, youth have embraced the new technologies. The researchers are seizing this opportunity to inform Africans, especially youth, and help change attitudes about FGM and women’s rights.

In doing so, they consider that they are promoting citizenship and the democratic process.“Most people in the areas under study are not informed of their rights, women even less so,” says Celestine Soré, one of the project’s researchers. “There is important awareness work and training to be done so that these populations feel adequately equipped to lead the fight against FGM. … We have to equip youth so that they question these practices, not only in the public domain but also in the often repressive private sphere.”

In fact, explains Mairam Sow, ENDA’s Executive Secretary, youth are generally left out in the development of prevention policies, at both formal or community levels, although they are the most concerned. Women, in particular, have no right to information, or power to communicate, make decisions, or have control over their bodies and those of their daughters. The situation is often worse for those who have not undergone FGM when it comes time to marry into communities where it is still practiced. And, asks Sow, will young men be able to stand up for human rights, including those of women’s equality, and participate in the fight against FGM?

Enlisting youth

In collaboration with women’s groups, NGOs, and health workers, the researchers are gathering information and statistics on FGM. They then share it with young women and men in different ways, including by email instant messaging, and interactive radio discussions.

In particular, the researchers explain women’s rights, as well as the effects of FGM on women’s reproductive, physical, and mental health. Educated youth, like Aida, are then mentored by women’s rights activists and given the training and skills needed to help them lead workshops in their communities.

The youth share their knowledge with their parents, grandparents, and others in their communities in the hopes of influencing a shift of beliefs and practices. The participation of the young men in these awareness campaigns is especially useful in patriarchal communities.

Part of the information-sharing process was the launching of an online international discussion forum in July 2007. Until February 2008, youth, organizations involved in the fight against FGM, those working with ICTs or involved with youth and community development, as well as researchers and policy-makers are invited to contribute to the discussion.

Despite the challenges they face, the researchers and participants are hopeful that their efforts will help reduce the number of cases of FGM in Western Africa. If Aida has her way, the change will be seen first in her own home. “Now that I know the consequences of [FGM] on human health … I’ll dedicate all my strength to fight these practices and protect younger girls from them by educating my people,” said Aida. “[I’ll start with] my parents first, so that my young sisters will not suffer the consequences.”

FGM in the countries under study

More than 90% of women have been circumcised in Mali, where FGM is not yet prohibited by law. A number of NGOs have been campaigning, with government support, against the practice. All but a few of Burkina Faso’s 50 ethnic groups practice FGM, and 70% of women there have undergone some form of the procedure. However, recent legislation outlaws FGM and the government campaigns widely against the practice. Only 20% of women in Senegal have been genitally mutilated. The practice was outlawed in 1999, and in 2003 more than 250 villages in Senegal pledged to abandon FGM. Source: Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State

Ramata Thioune is a program officer specializing in gender issues and is based in IDRC's Dakar, Senegal office.

Nadine Robitaille is the Managing Editor of IDRC’s online monthly newsletter, IDRC Bulletin.

This article first appeared in Lush Magazine