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Editorial: DEBATING FGM - A RESPONSE FROM FAIZA JAMA MOHAMMED

Faiza Jama Mohamed is Africa Regional Director of Equality Now

This is a response to Doreen Lwanga's comment. To use Lwanga's own words, it was quite "unsettling" to see such a response from someone from a prestigious US university and who claims to be a human rights activist, to categorize female genital mutilation (FGM) as not harmful! First and foremost, I would suggest that Lwanga seek information about the work of grassroots and women's movements in Africa, where for the past two decades extraordinary human rights activists have been struggling within their communities across the continent to eradicate FGM. The following are some additional comments in response to Lwanga's letter:

1. First and foremost, FGM is a harmful traditional practice that violates the fundamental human rights of women and girls and deprives them of the recognized legal rights to bodily integrity, freedom from violence, and access to education, health, equality, to name a few of these inalienable rights. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 130 million women and girls are afflicted by FGM and 6,000 girls a day are still subjected to the practice, which causes devastating physical and psychological consequences, including death. The WHO has declared all types of FGM harmful and it is performed in violation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), other international covenants and many African constitutions and national laws, including those in 14 African countries that specifically prohibit FGM.

2. Equality Now manages the Fund for Grassroots Activism to End FGM, which supports the work of organizations on the ground in over a dozen countries in Africa that work within their communities and governments to end FGM. Without exception, these are outstanding human rights activists who take great pride in their respective traditional African culture, but understand firsthand that FGM harms girls and is a traditional culture that must end.

These grassroots organizations work for instance on alternative rites of passage without genital cutting, education of youth, religious leaders and circumcisers on the harmful effects of FGM and ways to end it; they lobby their governments to institute laws against it and use the media effectively to break the silence and spread the word about FGM in their countries and around the world. They support young girls in Kenya and Ethiopia who have run away from the practice and those who were not able to escape the mutilation despite their efforts or the law.

Equality Now recently convened an unprecedented meeting with former circumcisers, who have laid down their knives to become anti-FGM activists. These women are a far cry from belonging to the elite and educated "majority" to which Lwanga alludes. These women speak for themselves and to their commitment to prevent other circumcisers and parents to subject girls to the harmful practice. I would suggest Lwanga conduct research and obtain additional information about these local African efforts.

3. In communities where it is practiced, FGM is a social prerequisite to marriage, religious obligation, and the passport to social acceptance by the girl's community. In fact, whether or not FGM is medicalized, FGM is used as a tool to oppress women as women, to deny them of their sexual rights and access to equality. When FGM is practiced as a rite of passage, girls, anywhere from the ages of 8 to 18, are more often than not removed from school and forcibly married shortly thereafter. Lwanga's comment about "consent" is troubling since it is well understood that inalienable human rights can never be "consented" away and under any circumstance can a child freely and knowingly consent to a harmful practice mandated by the ones they love.

4. The African Protocol is unique in that it addresses the concerns of women in Africa. It is a document drafted by African people (men and women) who are extremely knowledgeable on the various injustices and human rights violations committed against African women. All understand that many African cultural practices are prideful, but FGM is not one of them and must be ended without delay.

Lwanga's comparison of the intentional removal of female genitalia to childbirth is shocking, whereby one is a natural process, and the other is imposed on girls in the name of culture and religion, inflicting lifelong and unnecessary suffering. Would Lwanga also support the castration of boys for their subjugation and acceptance as males in society? Slavery was also a cultural tradition in the United States that lasted many centuries; however its acceptance in the fabric of American society did not negate it as a human rights violation.

5. With respect to polygamy, Article 16 of CEDAW states that every woman has the right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent. Women in polygamous relationships mostly have not been given the right to choose neither their husbands, nor a polygamous situation. Again this begs the question as to whether Lwanga would also support multiple husbands for a woman who would choose other men without her husband's consent? Polygamy is also a form of discrimination against women, that increasingly endangers the lives of women through the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS in situations where women have no control over
their sexuality and their bodies.

6. We agree that prostitution and the commercial sale of sex objectifies and degrades women, furthering the exploitation of women and perpetuating gender inequality. We support the prosecution of commercial sex users, pimps and traffickers who are the perpetrators of the exploitation of women trapped in prostitution. States have an obligation to protect women from prostitution by providing adequate economic and educational opportunities and empowering women toward healthier means of income. Linking prostitution to monogamy in any way, shape or form is baseless. Dire poverty, histories of sexual or other abuse, and no other opportunities for income generation, are among factors that contribute to prostitution. In terms of the exploitation of women through prostitution, many men living in communities where FGM is practiced testify that they seek uncircumcised women because they were not getting sexual pleasure with their circumcised wives.

Our role is to bring forth the yet unheard voices across Africa that are working to end violence and discrimination and to support their work in protecting the fundamental rights of women and girls. Every woman and girl must know about her human rights and our duty, as activists, is to impart this outreach and education to ensure girls will make informed choices instead of being misled in the name of culture or a misinterpretation of religion.
Lwanga's pessimistic and defeatist view that since some girls and women would never "make it" anyway, therefore let the status quo perpetuate itself, has little purpose in our collective quest toward equality and justice.

* Faiza Jama Mohamed is Africa Regional Director of Equality Now.

If you would like to contribute to this debate, please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org

Mr. Abdulqadir Mohamed Walaayo in Mogadishu forwarded these two articles to us-The Webmaster www.banadir.com

 


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