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Raising FGM awareness in Africa

February 6, 2017

Monday is International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the UN wants to draw global attention to the consequences of this gruesome tradition. DW reports from Tanzania and Guinea-Bissau.

Elfenbeinküste Mädchen bei Information Aufklärung gegen weibliche Genitalverstümmelung Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting (FGM / C) der UNICEF
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Unicef/Asselin

In Tanzania's Manyara Region, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, a grandmother is cutting the genitalia of her granddaughter with a knife. It is December 30, 2016. Two weeks later, the baby girl bled to death in hospital. She was just 17 days old.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) - also known as cutting or female circumcision - has been banned in Tanzania for the last 20 years. But the actions of the grandmother described above were not just an isolated incident. "We are getting information about new cases," Saumu Nasongoma told DW. She's the Inspector of Police and Head of Gender Desk at the Tarime police station in Mara region in northwestern Tanzania and says they do arrest the cutters, but convictions in a court of law are rare.   

"Up to 25 percent of women in northern Tanzanian say they have been cut," Rose Njilo told DW. She chairs Mimutie, an organization based in Arusha which campaigns for the abolition of FGM. Njilo has been battling against FGM for the last two years and says the true percentage of women who have been subject to it could be far higher than 25 percent. Because FGM is illegal, some women won't admit to having been cut, she said.

Bildergalerie Afrika Genitalverstümmelung
Despite the harmful effects, FGM remains a rite of passage particularly among families in rural areas Image: Reuters/S. Modola

FGM is still a huge problem in Tanzania especially among the nomadic peoples in the north of the country. The Maasai and other ethnic groups are unaware of the serious damage it causes to human health. "They believe that cutting is part of their culture and a girl can only become  a woman once she has been cut," Njilo said.  

FGM widespread Guinea-Bissau despite ban

In Guinea-Bissau, FGM is still prevalent mostly among Muslim communities even though it was outlawed in the West African country in 2011. Guinea-Bissau is home to some 40 different ethnic groups and about half of the country's population of 1.8 million are Muslims.

The "movement against the ban on female circumcision" wants to overturn the ban. Their headquarters are in a tiny mosque in the Missra district in the capital Bissau. Isaia Jalo, who heads the local Muslim community, told DW that 95 percent of Muslims in Guinea-Bissau believe that female circumcision is permissible under Islam. "It is a thousand year old custom practiced by Islamic tribes in Guinea-Bissau," said Jalo who insists that women have always been circumcised in Guinea-Bissau. He also says that only a few as a result.

Sensibilisierung im Dorf mit einem Theaterstück FGM
A drama group in Guinea-Bissau raising awareness of FGM, which can cause a lifetime of physical, psychological and sexual problems Image: Weltfriendensdient e.V.

Fatumata Djau Balde disagrees with this assertion. The former foreign minister chairs the "committee against traditional practices disadvantageous to women and children in Guinea-Bissua."  She says it is the men in Guinea-Bissau who insist that FGM continues. "They do so under the pretext of religious belief. Some even say that the Koran recommends female circumcision. Many women simply accept this because they can't read and don't know anything about the Koran," Balde said. In Guinea-Bissau, it is the men who read and interpret the Koran. "When the men say the Koran tells you to do this or that, then many women will believe them."

The World Health Organization says that around half of all women in Guinea-Bissau are victims of FGM. Balde's organization - like Mimutie in Tanzania - believes public health campaigns are the way to end the practice. The campaigns target mostly women in outlying villages. And there are signs of hope. According to Balde 146 village communities in Guinea-Bissau - men and women - have voluntarily agreed to refrain from practicing FGM. "With the help of education and information, awareness of the problem is growing," she said. "In 2010, 36 percent of woman in Guinea-Bissau said they were in favor of female circumcision, in 2014 it was only 13 percent. People are becoming more aware," Balde added.