Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Women's Health

HEALTH-NIGER: A Hundred Dollars Goes a Long Way to Ending Genital Mutilation

Ousseini Issa

NIAMEY, Apr 29 2005 (IPS) - “It’s not easy to give up a profession passed down to you by your parents that you’ve been at for years. But once you become aware of the grave harm you do others in this job, you have to quit,” says Salmou Himadou.

Until 2003, she was one of those who carried out the reviled practice of female genital mutilation, also referred to as female circumcision, in Niger. But two years ago she laid down tools with the help of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which has realised that finances, as much as tradition, are at the heart of this practice.

“The NGO gave me a 50,000 CFA franc (about 100 dollars) loan to fund a new business. Thank God, I’m making a lot more money selling spices than I was as a circumcisor,” Himadou, who hails from the southern region of Tillaberi, told IPS.

The NGO in question is the Niger Committee on Deadly Traditional Practices (Comité nigérien sur les pratiques traditionnelles néfastes – Coniprat), based in the capital of Niamey.

“Himadou is one of about forty circumcisors that we’ve been able to retrain since we began operating in 1992,” says Coniprat president Maiga Amsou Amadou.

While some have joined Himadou in the spice trade, others have used their 100-dollar loans to start selling doughnuts, develop market gardens or extract peanut oil on a small scale.

“This (genital mutilation) is a subject which has long been taboo in our country. But by now, it has lost its mystique. People talk about it openly and circumcisors are ready to give up the profession to take on new ones, especially due to the awareness…and training campaigns we’ve conducted on the dangers of the practice,” Amadou told IPS.

Although circumcision was banned here in 2003 it remains widespread in the country, as elsewhere in Africa – where the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that up to 130 million women have undergone the practice. According to Coniprat, the area of Tillaberi has one of the highest rates of circumcision in the country – about 30 percent. In the capital of Niamey and surrounding regions, the rate is 17 percent.

The practice involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, and the labia minora and labia majora, which are folds of skin around the urethral and vaginal openings. This procedure may be carried out using crude instruments such as pieces of glass, tin lids and razor blades, which are often unsterilized.

The resulting wounds are sewn up, leaving only a small orifice for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Apart from the pain and trauma it causes, circumcision may lead to various forms of infection, incontinence, sterility – and difficulties in child birth, such as obstetric fistulas.

According to a study on fistulas conducted in 2003 by the United Nations Development Programme, about a fifth of women who were treated for this condition in Niger during 2002 had experienced some form of genital mutilation.

“My daughter is paying for her circumcision today. She suffers from a fistula that was operated on several times without success. And according to the physician, it was the excision she had in her childhood which worsened her case,” a woman at the Reception Center for Women with Fistulas, in Niamey, told IPS.

Fistulas occur during prolonged obstructed labour, when the blood supply to parts of the vagina, bladder and – on occasion – the rectum, is cut off. This causes the tissue in these areas to die, then rot, creating a hole through which urine and fecal matter flow. The resultant incontinence causes many girls and women to be excluded from society, and abandoned by their husbands.

Mutilation has also been known to cause death through severe bleeding. And, “Today, there is another serious danger, and that’s the spread of HIV/AIDS with the use of non-sterilized instruments by the circumcisor,” Dr Bako Bagassi of the Niamey-based National Programme Against Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS told IPS.

Circumcision, typically carried out on children and teenagers, occurs for a variety of reasons. Some believe the practice reduces sexual desire on the part of a girl, ensuring that she remains chaste before marriage – and faithful afterwards. In other instances, circumcision marks a girl’s initiation into adulthood.

Certain communities practice circumcision because they believe female genitalia are unhygienic. There is also a belief that it is a religious requirement under Islam.

“For the communities that practice it, excision is an instrument that controls women’s sexuality; it is perceived as a socialization measure, a factor that stabilizes social order. Some even go so far as to seek its roots in Islam,” a sociologist told IPS.

But Imam Ali Soumaila, a religious leader who heads a mosque in Niamey, denies that circumcision is requirement for Muslims: “This practice has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.”

According to the 2003 law which outlawed circumcision, those who carry out the practice – or attempt to do so – are liable for imprisonment of up to three years and fines ranging from 40 to 400 dollars. In the event that a girl dies as a result of circumcision, the person who carried out the procedure will receive a prison term of 10 to 20 years – as will those who assisted them.

However, the effects of these penalties have yet to be felt.

“The law is not enforced because to enforce it, you have to first see it (mutilation) happening; people have to inform on the circumcisor and she has to be caught in the act,” says Amadou.

In July 2003, an African Union (AU) summit held in Mozambique adopted a protocol calling for genital mutilation to be banned across the continent.

However, the ‘Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa’ must be ratified by at least 15 of the AU’s 53 states before it can enter into force. As of early February this year, 10 countries were reported to have endorsed the measure.

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