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Female Genital Mutilation: Stop it!

WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2012 (IPS) - “Are you crazy, Fauziya?” Cecilia asked. “You want to go back to Togo?”

Cecilia Jeffrey, herself hailing from the West African country, couldn’t believe her ears. Her friend and roommate Fauziya Kassinja was confessing she was ready to end her struggle to be the first woman in U.S. history to gain political asylum because she feared female genital mutilation.

Later Cecilia walked out of the shower and showed Fauziya how she had been changed forever in an effort to convince her friend to change her mind.

Fauziya remembered that Cecilia confronted her with the possibility that the same could happen to her. “She said to me, ‘Is this what you want to go back to? Do you know what this is?’”

Fauziya confessed, “I didn’t know. It didn’t look anything like female genitalia. Nothing. It was just like the palm of my hand. And the only thing you could see was a scar, like a stitch. And just a little hole. That’s it, no lips, nothing. I said, ‘You live with this?’ And Cecilia said, ‘All my life. I cry all the time when I see it. I cry inside. I feel weak, I feel defeated.’”

Up to 140 million girls and women have had their undergarments removed, their legs spread against their will, and their genitals hacked, usually with rocks, knives, scissors, razors or other cruel instruments. Anesthesia is rare. Most victims suffer excruciating pain, hemorrhaging, complicated pregnancies and even death; often they contract HIV/AIDS and hepatitis from unsterilised tools. Survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and more. Every day 8,000 girls, aged two weeks to 15 years old, are at risk of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C).

Thanks to the efforts of courageous local women, backed by NGOs, governments and the United Nations, progress is being made. Thousands of communities across Africa and the Middle East have decided to end the practice.

Brave lawmakers have passed legislation making it illegal, and thanks to the advocacy efforts of many African countries and Italy, which has long been a leader in the fight against this practice, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the General Assembly have made ending female genital mutilation a priority.

But efforts to curb the practice must be manifold and a lot more remains to be done.

More healthcare practitioners are needed to educate patients about the harmful effects of genital cutting. According to the U.N., those who have undergone FGM/C run a significantly greater risk of requiring a Caesarean section, episiotomy, and post-partum haemorrhaging. Both maternal and infant mortality increases for FGM mothers.

More leaders and highly respected agents of change must engage the community. These women and men carry enormous weight and their public embrace of basic rights over traditional practices matter. Religious leaders who have preached against FGM/C at Church on Sunday or the Mosque on Friday have made significant inroads into stopping the practice. There is a common belief that FGM is an important religious practice, but it is not cited in the Bible or Koran.

Communities need to collectively express a resolve to end the practice. In many communities, FGM is regarded as necessary in order to for a girl to be accepted as suitable for marriage. Communities that embrace the rights to health, dignity and bodily integrity are more successful when they publicly declare their abandonment of FGM.

Healthcare professionals must delegitimise the practice by refusing to administer the procedure in hospitals. A disturbing trend over the past several decades has been the “medicalisation of FGM.”

In response to the adverse health consequences of traditional methods, many have sought FGM in hospital or clinical settings. Healthcare workers should explain the grievous health consequences of the practice and refuse to participate.

Better media coverage could play a critical role in eliminating FGM/C. Television, radio, billboard and print media, as well as the Arts, including music, plays and more, have had a tremendously positive impact in eliminating FGM.

Making FGM/C illegal at the national level makes explicit a state’s disapproval of the practice, allows for compensation to victims and enables agents of the state to hold perpetrators accountable for violence against women.

It acts as a deterrent to practitioners and a source of legitimisation for those who seek to abandon the practice.

When my eleven-year-old daughter Cara heard Fauziya’s account, she wrote the following poem:

Female genital mutilation

Looks like it really hurts.

Ouch! Stop it!

Indeed. Let us all work together to stop it.


(*) Kerry Kennedy is the President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

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