West Africa: Religious leaders denounce FGM

In December 2005, West African religious and traditional leaders met with political officials and affirmed their commitment to eradicating female genital mutilation, saying that to abandon the practice is not to reject traditional or religious values.
We are in no way abandoning African culture when we abandon [female genital mutilation], Melegue Traore, traditional Chief and former President of Burkina Fasos National Assembly, told reporters on the opening day of a conference gathering politicians, health and human rights NGOs, religious experts and traditional leaders in the Senegalese capital.
The conference was organised by the Senegalese National Assembly and the African Parliamentary Union in cooperation with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the UN Childrens Fund (UNICEF). Parliamentarians from across Africa discussed ways to help end FGM, which is widely practiced despite national and international laws deeming it a violation of human rights and a threat to womens health.

Participants agreed that traditional and religious leaders are vital to changing communities attitudes toward FGM, which is held up by widespread belief that tradition or religion dictates the practice. Those working to eradicate FGM come up against views like that of Hadja Nene Yansane in the Guinean capital Conakry, who insists that FGM is required by religion and even morality. If a girl is not [cut], she could go into prostitution, Yansane said. Its a requirement in the Koran. Guinea has one of the highest levels of FGM prevalence in the region, with an estimated 99 per cent of females aged 15 to 49 cut, according to national health surveys. Abdoul Aziz Kebe, an expert in Islam, population and development, said at the Dakar conference that it is a misinterpretation of the Koran to say that it sanctions FGM.

Religious leaders at the conference pointed to text in the Koran that says: Any change to Gods creation is an atrocity inspired by the devil. While the practice appears to be declining in some countries, experts say, eradicating FGM requires constant and concerted action by governments, the international community and civil society. Traditional and religious leaders at the conference were encouraged by the final declaration, which calls them valued allies in the fight and urges awareness campaigns for traditional community leaders. The problem is we talk about it in our workshops and conferences, but we do not integrate it into our sermons and media programmes, largely because it is easier to simply lay down a moral law than engage in scientific explanations for barring FGM, Kebe said.

If not seen as a religious mandate, FGM has also been passed down in many societies as part of female initiation rituals - similar to circumcision as an initiation rite for boys. But experts at the conference said this is less the case than in the past and that FGM increasingly is performed on an individual basis, and the traditional initiation ceremonies do not always take place.

One of the biggest concerns for those fighting FGM is that with this trend away from collective ritual, and toward cutting girls individually, comes a medicalisation of the process - that is, more and more it is being done by health practitioners in hospital. In Guinea, a national NGO campaigning against female genital cutting recently warned government health officials of this trend, saying the danger is that some people believe that FGM performed in a hospital is somehow safe. The government took the message to medical professionals, and many stopped performing the procedure.

A new UNICEF report points out that WHO and the World Medical Association have condemned the participation of medical personnel in any kind of female genital cutting. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says three million girls per year undergo some form of genital cutting, mainly in 28 countries of Africa and the Middle East.

SOURCE: IRIN News, 07/Dec/05