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RIGHTS-CAMEROON: Finally, a Law Against Female Genital Mutilation?

Sylvestre Tetchiada

YAOUNDE, Jul 3 2006 (IPS) - Recently, Cameroon’s female legislators could be found under a tree in the garden of the country’s parliament, listening to Hannah Kwenti: 17, the mother of a five-month-old baby girl – and a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM).

“I come from Mamfé (in south-western Cameroon), where I was circumcised in January after the birth of Ruth,” she told IPS. “My parents-in-law insisted on it, believing that if it was not done, I could one day be unfaithful to Peter (her husand).”

The procedure took place just three days after Kwenti had given birth.

“During the excision I lost a lot of blood, and while the pain was convulsing me the woman there (the circumcisor) said, ‘Stop crying, your case is still tolerable. There are some for whom we remove all the stuff there’.”

FGM, also referred to as female circumcision, involves the partial or complete removal of female genitalia; the resultant wound is stitched up to allow a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.

Excisions are performed for a variety of reasons, including the belief that FGM reduces a woman’s sexual appetite, and can lower the risk of infidelity on the part of women.

Kwenti said the woman who circumcised her said she would “not desire men other than Peter”, while sexually transmitted diseases would “never be (her) concern.”

“I wished to die, but God did not want this. I advise against (FGM) for your daughter,” Kwenti added, holding her head in her hands.

She was in Yaoundé to take part in a campaign to raise awareness amongst female legislators about the dangers of female circumcision. This initiative is being organised by the Cameroon Young Jurists Legal Resource Centre, a non-governmental organisation based in Buéa, west of the capital – Yaoundé.

FGM is a common in certain communities of Cameroon, a country in West Africa – and is also practiced in about 30 other nations on the continent, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International.

The Cameroon Young Jurists Legal Resource Centre believes that during the past three years alone, about 600 women have been mutilated in south-western Cameroon, one of the regions most affected by FGM (circumcision varies between communities, and within ethnic groups).

In addition, a report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada notes that in certain parts of the country all Muslim girls are affected by the practice, and almost two thirds of Christian girls.

The practice of FGM has been linked to religious beliefs. It is also seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, while others view it as essential for hygiene, and improving the appearance of the genital area.

Nationally, the United Nations estimates that about 20 percent of women in Cameroon are victims of circumcision, which can be carried out at any stage: at birth, during early childhood, in the course of adolescence, just before marriage or after the birth of the first child.

Official figures put Cameroon’s population at about 17 million inhabitants, of which 52 percent are women.

Circumcision can lead to a variety of problems, such as painful intercourse, complications in pregnancy, and urinary and reproductive tract infections; some have also died as a result of FGM. In addition, the use of unsterilised instruments to carry out FGM can cause girls and women to contract HIV.

Despite this, there is no law against circumcision in Cameroon, even though the right to health is protected by the constitution and the penal code.

The country is also signatory to several international conventions aimed at promoting the rights of women and girls: the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights – and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

“In 2001, government launched a modest campaign aimed at sensitising communities of certain regions about the harmful effects of FGM,” Esther Ayuk, president of the Cameroon Young Jurists Legal Resource Centre, told IPS. “But, the country has not conducted any activity about this issue in later years, and the practice has flourished.”

The centre’s campaign may play a part in changing this situation, however.

“We have seen and understood the effects that FGM can have on our children,” Rose Abunaw, vice-president of the National Assembly of Cameroon, told IPS. “We are shocked by this practice.”

According to Abunaw, the 20 female legislators (the country has 180 parliamentarians) will conduct a visit to communities next month to meet circumcisors and their victims, as well as civil society organisations – this ahead of drawing up the first-ever law on FGM. The legislation could be submitted to parliament before the end of the year.

“The advancement of women cannot be conceived of without an end to FGM,” Jacqueline Ntep, a manager at the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family, told IPS.

“This is why we alert national associations and all partners in education and sensitisation to the dangers incurred by children who are victims of genital mutilation.”

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