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ABIDJAN, Jul 27 2012 (IPS) - Nine women in the northern Côte d’Ivoire town of Katiola have been convicted for carrying out female genital mutilation – the first time that a 1998 law banning FGM has been applied.
The women were found guilty of excising thirty girls aged between 10 and 15 in February. They were each sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a fine equivalent to roughly 100 dollars.
“We have been waiting a long time for a boost in the fight against this scourge,” said Rachel Gogoua in the Ivorian economic capital, Abidjan, where she heads the National Organisation for Children, Women and the Family (ONEF), a non-governmental organisation that campaigns against FGM.
“The time for awareness-raising is over: now we need to sanction perpetrators.”
The Katiola court handed down the sentences on Jul 18, but in view of the women’s ages – ranging between 46 and 91 years old – decided none will actually have to spend time in prison. Gogoua told IPS she feels the convicted women should serve at least a token amount of jail time to drive home the message to others still practicing excision in many parts of the country.
“The law forbidding these practices was passed in 1998 and we have carried out extensive public education about it. In the end, we have to realise that these women are making fools of us. They are well aware of the law, but they defied it under the pretext of customary practice and tradition,” said Gogoua.
Despite the 1998 law, genital mutilation is still widespread in Côte d’Ivoire, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Based on surveys carried out in 2006, UNICEF estimates that 36 percent of Ivorian women have undergone excision, making it one of the worst affected countries in Africa.
Female genital mutilation is the complete or partial removal of the external genitals of a woman, according to the World Health Organization. This can involve the vulva, the major and minor labia, the clitoris, as well as the urinary and vaginal tracts.
The practice is most common in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, where nearly 88 percent of women are affected, and in the west, where the prevalence rate is 73 percent, according to UNICEF.
Massandjé Timité, 33, is originally from Marandallah, in the north.
“I still feel the pain from my excision today, 15 years later,” she told IPS. “It was a terrible trauma. The wounds healed very slowly, and with each day that passed, I feared the worst.”
Timité said that to evoke tradition to justify the continuation of FGM is to make a superficial argument. “When an excision is clumsily executed, as it was in my case, no one comes to help you. Does tradition accept that a woman should lose the very thing that allows her to give life?”
Despite numerous awareness campaigns and repeated promises by excisors, FGM continues to be practiced.
“Amongst us, the Wobé (an ethnic group in the west), it’s a shameful thing to be called ‘zoégbé’ (an un-excised woman),” explained Cécile Gnowahou, 26, who went through the procedure when she was 11.
“You don’t have the right to marry and you are often ridiculed in the village. In this context, our parents hear the message, but the cultural reality overrides it. This is a custom that has existed since before our parents’ grandparents’ time,” she said.
“Excision causes much more harm than one thinks,” said Gnowahou. “Sometimes it even leads to the victim dying, yet even when these things happen, it is amicably resolved between families.”
Gnowahou’s own experience illustrates the social dilemma that FGM presents many Ivorian women with. “Not only was I unable to get married following the prolonged bleeding that I suffered, but now times have changed and any man who knows about my status as an excised woman automatically rejects me,” she said.
But she believes that if the law against female genital mutilation is applied, it would begin to reduce the prevalence of FGM.
Her sentiments were echoed by Raymonde Goudou Coffie, Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister for the Family, Women and Children, who said that the successful prosecution in Katiola is only a beginning. The minister said the law would be applied in full against practices which affront human dignity, particularly that of women.
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