Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

WEST AFRICA: Female Genital Mutilation Knows No Borders

Mercedes Sayagues

PRETORIA, Feb 6 2009 (IPS) - Laws against female genital mutilation are driving the practice underground and across borders, says UNIFEM.

FGM -- no longer announced in the market, but still thriving. Credit:  Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

FGM -- no longer announced in the market, but still thriving. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

A study released in 2008 looked at the flow of girls traveling to be excised between Burkina Faso and its neighbours Mali, Niger, Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire. Except Mali, all four countries in the study have laws against female genital mutilation (FGM), although enforcement varies widely.

Outlawing the practice has "deeply biased the discourse on female excision", says the study. In surveys, interviews and informal conversations, people deny that the practice continues. Group excisions are no longer announced in the market. But it still happens, and it travels wherever people think it will not be punished or noted.

"We think it is getting worse," said Francis Bogie Boogere, a specialist in sexual violence with UNIFEM in Burkina Faso.

The study notes that in addition to anti-FGM legislation, ethnic ties across frontiers underpin social and cultural networks that help cross-border excision. The Peul move between the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger, the Gourmantche between Burkina and Niger, the Dagara and Lobi between Burkina and Ghana, while Burkinabe workers in Cote d’ Ivoire go home to excise the girls and return. When northern Cote d’ Ivoire turned lawless during the civil war, female cutting flourished there.

Mossi and Yagse communities from Burkina Faso find in Mali "the ideal situation to excise their daughters in plain view" says the study. Between July and November, when thousands of young Burkinabe cross on foot, by ox cart, bicycle or minibus to pick cotton in Mali, and during school holidays, girls melt into the flux.

Boogere has picked up anecdotal evidence of trafficking in cut clitorides for witchcraft in Cote d’ Ivoire. "Excisers in Benin and Togo know traditional doctors who know rich men in Cote d’ Ivoire who believe these fetishes will make them richer," he told IPS. This trade could sap efforts to end the harmful practice inflicted on thousands of girls in West Africa every year, he worries.

Since West African nationals don’t need passports and visas to travel in the region, the families can easily take the girls across the border. Some excisers run rudimentary guesthouses for their visitors. Or the exciser travels to do a mass circumcision, or families and exciser meet across the border.

Excisers of the Mossi ethnic group are reputed to be the best. The study describes how Mossi migrant communities secretly organize the travel of famous excisers into Ghana and, through a complex system of coded information and alerts, hide them and get them out if they risk arrest.

Boomerang effect

Anti-FGM laws help make people aware of the harm of excision but also cause "a negative mutation into a clandestine phenomenon", says the study. Secrecy makes estimates harder, but it seems girls are getting cut at a younger age, according to Boogere.

In Burkina Faso, which banned genital cutting in 1996, "clandestinity is an unpredicted consequence of the law," said Alice Tiendrebeogo, a Burkinabe historian, teacher, and a former minister of education.

This is one reason why Mali, where some 80 per cent of girls are excised, is taking "la voie douce" (the soft way) of convincing people to abandon the practice through community campaigns, explained Diarra Affusatou Thiero, a Supreme Court judge and former minister for the promotion of women, children and the family between 1997-2002.

"We don’t want to pass a law just to say we have one if it will not be respected and applied," she told IPS.

"Our mothers-in-law, our grandmothers and mothers take our children to be excised while we are at work or traveling. How can I take my mother-in-law to court? I’d lose my husband, my family. I’d be disgraced. It’s complicated. It is better to sensitize to bring change", she added.

Yet precisely because Mali "does not have repressive mechanisms around excision it remains an El Dorado for Burkinabe practitioners," says the study.

The region has no mechanisms to deal with cross-border FGM. Only Ghana’s law allows prosecution if the cutting is performed outside the country. Elsewhere, lawmakers did not foresee the cross-border strategy of people resisting change.

In November, at a meeting with First Ladies of seven West African countries, Unifem and governments launched a regional action plan in the border regions involving governors, police and NGOs.

"The key issue is that both sides of the border must be vigilant", said Tiendrebeogo. Nevertheless, says the study, the solution does not lie in repression, but in convincing people to abandon the practice. Community radio stations are key to this approach, as they reach people in their own language and broadcast across borders.

Also essential is greater public commitment from political, religious and traditional leaders, WHICH the study deems "feeble". So far, campaigns remain sporadic, non-participatory and poorly adapted to their target. "Cross border excision is an unexpected and perverse consequence… and proof of the inefficacy of approaches and strategies used," concludes the study.

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