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COTONOU, Jan 16 2005 (IPS) - For International Action Against Female Genital Mutilation, a German group active in Benin and other African countries, 2005 will be a year in which past successes in the fight against mutilation are celebrated – and efforts to eradicate it continue with renewed vigour.
A ‘No More Excisions’ festival is planned for Benin in April. President Mathieu Kerekou, who first suggested 2005 as a deadline for rooting out female genital mutilation (FGM) in the country, is expected to attend this event.
International Action Against Female Genital Mutilation (INTACT) operates with the assistance of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are also active in trying to eliminate FGM, sometimes referred to as female circumcision. In Benin, INTACT works with five NGOs: Dignite Feminine, Apem, Moritz, Potal Men and Ti-Winti.
As part of its strategy to eradicate FGM, INTACT tries to provide practitioners with alternative sources of income.
Between 2000 and 2005, 228 practitioners were persuaded to give up their FGM activities and take up other occupations.
Fifty-six women who worked as intermediaries, putting practitioners in contact with parents who wanted their daughters circumcised, were also convinced to abandon the practice. In addition, 30 traditional healers renounced FGM.
Of these 314 individuals, 129 received loans to embark on new trades.
Since it was founded in 1996, the same year it financed its first project in Benin, INTACT says it has spent almost 600,000 dollars in the fight against FGM in this West African country.
A landmark event in the fight against circumcision took place in 2003, when a man called Tampobre who had previously performed a substantial number of circumcisions in the north-east and south-west of Benin, went on tour to announce that he no longer condoned the practice. His tour included a visit to the region of Atacora – one of the regions of Benin where support for FGM is strongest.
A law was also passed in March 2003 outlawing all forms of FGM, and making the practice punishable with heavy fines and jail terms of up to five years. If the girl who has been circumcised dies, then an even steeper fine is imposed, while the FGM practitioner is imprisoned for up to 10 years.
“Many things have happened in the past five years and we’ve made a lot of progress in our campaign, although we still need to keep up the fight,” says Honorine Attikpa, president of Dignite Feminine (“Female Dignity”).
According to Toussaint N’Djonoufa, INTACT’s representative in Benin, “The no-interest loan (given to former FGM practitioners) is for 120,000 CFA francs (about 250 dollars) with the repayment schedule set up however the receiver would like it.”
“Repayment and renewal of the loan allows each NGO to maintain a relationship with the former excisor who has the loan, and to monitor the person,” N’Djonoufa told IPS. “Credit is a contract of confidence that the individual will abandon this practice (of excision).”
Many of those who receive loans apparently turn to agriculture to replace the income they had earned from carrying out circumcisions. The former FGM practitioners start growing cotton, manioc, corn and other cereals – such as millet – which form part of the basic diet in Benin. Still others speculate with buying corn or shea-tree nuts, and selling these commodities when their prices rise.
NGO workers go door-to-door in their effort to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM, approaching families with the assistance of respected community members. Village meetings are also held to discuss the practice, and to designate people to serve on committees which monitor FGM.
In addition, activists make use of films that warn about the side effects of circumcision.
FGM involves the removal of part, or all of the female genitals: the clitoris, and folds of skin around the openings of the urethra and the vagina. The wounds created by these excisions are then stitched up, leaving an opening for the excretion of urine and menstrual blood.
The age group of girls and women on whom the practice is carried out differs widely, and the reasons for practicing FGM are varied. Some communities see it as an initiation into adulthood, while certain Muslim leaders believe it is a religious requirement.
There is a also a popular belief that FGM reduces a women’s desire for sex – and that a circumcised woman is thus more likely to remain faithful to her partner.
In addition to causing an assortment of physical complications – which can even lead to death – the practice may complicate sexual intercourse and childbirth. The use of the same instruments to circumcise different girls and women also puts FGM victims at risk of contracting HIV.
No reliable statistics are available in Benin as to the number of girls and women who may have died as a result of circumcision-related ailments, as officials are rarely notified of these deaths.
Given that FGM practitioners often ply their trade in remote locations, the better to escape the scrutiny of rights activists, it is also difficult to gauge the exact extent to which the practice is observed in Benin.
In July 2003, an African Union summit held in Mozambique adopted a protocol which calls for the banning of FGM: the ‘Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa’. However, this protocol still needs to be endorsed by several states before it can enter into force.
A New York-based group, No Peace Without Justice, says about two million girls and women undergo FGM every year, and that most circumcisions are carried out in sub-Saharan Africa and countries in the Arab peninsula.
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