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RIGHTS-COTE D&#39IVOIRE: Fighting FGM From Mosque and Pulpit

Fulgence Zamblé

ABIDJAN, Nov 5 2007 (IPS) - In certain parts of Africa, female genital mutilation (FGM) has been linked to religion, with Muslim communities mistakenly believing that the practice is a religious requirement. But in Côte d&#39Ivoire, religion is also being put at the service of fighting FGM.

El Hadj Kassoum Traoré, an imam at a small mosque in Belleville – one of the poorer areas in the commercial hub of Abidjan – sets aside time during the Friday prayer for explaining the dangers of FGM to worshippers. The weekly prayer is an obligation for able Muslim men.

Since beginning his battle against FGM almost two months ago, Traoré has also called on believers to refrain from having their daughters mutilated, and to condemn those who practice FGM – sometimes referred to as female circumcision. In addition, he has asked circumcisors to stop carrying out FGM.

Each week, Traoré meets elders from the Muslim community of the area to debate circumcision.

"The practice of excision isn&#39t authorised anywhere in the Koran or the Bible," he told IPS. "This is a traditional and customary practice…But the risks (of FGM) are such that we must think of putting an end to it."

Female circumcision can have a range of negative consequences, ranging from pain and sexual dysfunction to death through infection. The practice involves the partial or complete removal of female genitals, or other types of injury to the genitalia. The vaginal opening may also be narrowed through stitching.

The reasons for carrying out FGM vary from one community to another. In addition to being seen as a religious requirement, it is viewed as a rite of initiation into adulthood, or necessary for hygiene. Other reasons for circumcision include the belief that it lessens female desire, ensuring chastity ahead of marriage and preventing infidelity thereafter.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the majority of girls and women who have been circumcised are to be found in 28 African states. "Today, the number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation is estimated at between 100 and 140 million," adds the agency, on its website. "It is estimated that each year, a further 2 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM."

In a more upmarket part of Abidjan – and this time in a church – the dangers of FGM are also being addressed.

"If someone here has links with the practice, let them stop this now," warns François Miézan, pastor of the Methodist Church of II Plateaux. "If you remove a human organ from someone, you are committing a crime."

Miézan also calls on believers to inform police about circumcisors. FGM has been banned in Côte d&#39Ivoire for a decade. However, tradition and custom ensure that the practice persists, even in the face of campaigns to convince people otherwise; in fact, FGM prevalence has even increased in the West African nation, according to the resident representative of the United Nations Children&#39s Fund, Youssouf Oomar. He says prevalence is currently estimated at 44.5 percent, compared to 40 percent in 1995. Northern and western regions are especially affected.

At the fourth international symposium of religious leaders involved in the fight against FGM, held recently in Abidjan, Oomar described the situation of girls and women who are victims of circumcision in Côte d&#39Ivoire as "worrying".

Abdalah Djigui Cissé, another imam – and president of the Abidjan-based Fondation "Djigui la Grande espérance" (the Great Hope of Djigui Foundation) – notes that religious leaders have some way to go in their efforts to end FGM. "Some of us have started sensitisation in communities, with satisfactory results," he told IPS. "But, it&#39s still insufficient, and we must continue our efforts." ("Djigui" refers to meetings organised after prayers to explain to Muslim believers that FGM has no basis in Islam.)

Such words are welcome to Adja Fatou Diomandé, who attends a large mosque in Aghien-Cocody, another area of Abidjan. "When one knows that the rites have been inherited from the past, it&#39s always difficult to abandon them," she told IPS. "If our religious leaders think that the moment has come to…lessen the suffering of women, then God be praised!"

The campaign against FGM is being conducted as Côte d&#39Ivoire struggles with a peace process to put the country back on track after a failed coup five years ago, and the subsequent division of the state into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.

An accord signed in the Burkinabé capital, Ouagadougou, in March has brought moves towards reunification, along with hopes of a presidential election in 2008.

However, problems surround disarmament and voter identification to issue papers that will enable citizens who are currently undocumented to cast ballots.

Questions about nationality were at the heart of the civil conflict that divided Côte d&#39Ivoire, which has experienced resentment towards migrants from neighbouring states who were welcome in times of economic prosperity (during the 1960s and 1970s) – but less so when the economy began to decline in the face of lower commodity prices.

In a report to the Security Council last month, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki- moon voiced unease over the lack of progress with the Ivorian peace process.

"I am deeply concerned that the failure to adhere to the timelines set out in the agreement has led to a slackening of momentum which, if it continues, would undermine successful implementation," the U.N. head noted.

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