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Emma Batha – WNN Justice
(WNN/TL) LONDON, U.K.: At seven years old, Khady Koita’s childhood was torn apart when she was pinned down and attacked by two women wielding a razor blade. The violence inflicted on her that day would change her life forever.
On Monday, Koita, a leading figure in the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM), will join other high-profile activists at the United Nations to drum up support for a global ban on a practice forced on millions of children every year.
“FGM is horrific, brutal, degrading and indefensible,” said Koita, who was born in Senegal and now lives in Brussels. “My big hope is that one day no girl will have to go through what I have been through.”
The move to stamp out FGM – which is widely practised in Africa and pockets of the Middle East and Asia – is being driven by African member states of the United Nations, led by Burkina Faso.
They are now applying the finishing touches to a draft resolution banning FGM to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in early October. It is expected to be adopted in December.
An estimated 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM, which can cause serious physical and emotional damage. Campaigners liken the psychological effects of FGM to those of rape.
“It is important that women like me who have suffered so much from this humiliation … and who have the privilege to be able to shout our rage, that we do so for those who can’t,” said Koita, founder of campaign group La Palabre.
In Africa, FGM is practised in 28 countries from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. Other places it is found include Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.
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Many believe it preserves a girl’s virginity and see it is an important rite of passage and prerequisite for marriage. Parents say it is done out of love because it purifies the girl and brings her status.
FGM ranges from the partial or total removal of the clitoris to the most extreme form called infibulation, in which all external genitalia are cut off and the vaginal opening is stitched closed.
It is usually arranged by the women in the family and performed by traditional cutters who use anything from scissors to broken glass and tin can lids.
FGM can cause haemorrhaging, shock, chronic pain, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts, menstrual problems and infertility. It increases the risk of labour complications and newborn deaths.
The procedure itself can prove fatal. “About 6,000 to 8,000 girls are mutilated every day,” Koita said. “No one knows how many die.”
Recent research in northern Iraq also suggests girls who undergo FGM are more prone to mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“STOP CUTTING YOUR CHILDREN”
Although 17 of the African countries where FGM is found have made it illegal, the laws are often poorly enforced. Others like Mali, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan have no law.
Koita believes a resolution will help activists “put governments up against the wall”.
“It will be an extraordinary tool for people to get the laws that exist implemented, and it will also help people who don’t yet have laws in their country,” she said.
The resolution will not be enforceable but the fact it has been initiated by African countries will add a lot of weight, according to veteran rights campaigner Emma Bonino, who will address a high level meeting at the United Nations on Monday attended by activists and government ministers.
“I’m not saying it’s the miracle solution. I’m simply saying that at the end we will have a legal tool clearly saying what is right and what is wrong,” said Bonino, vice president of the Italian Senate and founder of rights group No Peace Without Justice.
“It will be particularly important in countries like Mali, which still don’t have a law because (activists) will be in some way protected in saying that this is not one individual’s bizarre idea; it’s the international community which is saying, ‘Stop cutting your children’.”
FGM is found among Islamic and Christian communities, although it predates both faiths. It is also practised by followers of indigenous beliefs. Although FGM is often believed to be a religious requirement, it is not mentioned in the Koran or any other religious text.
Efua Dorkenoo, head of the FGM campaign at rights group Equality Now, said a major barrier to tackling the scourge was the enormous influence of conservative religious leaders in countries like Mali, Gambia and Egypt, who advocate the practice.
Dorkenoo said another problem on the west coast of Africa were the powerful women’s secret societies in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, which support FGM.
Campaigners singled out Burkino Faso for showing real commitment to eradicating FGM. The country has some of the strongest laws, has carried out hundreds of prosecutions and set up a hotline where people can inform the authorities when they hear FGM is about to happen. Burkino Faso has also got traditional chiefs on board.
Another country that has made significant efforts is Senegal, where grassroots organisation Tostan has persuaded thousands of villages to renounce FGM over the past 15 years. Building on this work, the government has launched a National Action Plan to eradicate FGM by 2015. However, surveys suggest this is unlikely.
Campaigners also celebrated this year when Somalia – where almost all girls undergo FGM – banned the practice under its new constitution. But in a country where brides risk instant divorce if they have not been cut, no one is under any illusion that it will take a lot more to stop the practice.
Dorkenoo says the reasons for carrying out FGM vary between countries and between communities, which means you need different approaches for tackling it.
In Somalia, for example, people believe it keeps a girl chaste, prevents promiscuity after marriage and increases male pleasure. It is also cited as a religious requirement.
But in neighbouring Kenya where FGM is practised by the Maasai, it is tied up with the “bride price” system whereby daughters are married off very young – usually in exchange for cattle.
“We don’t believe you can transfer one model for tackling FGM across Africa,” Dorkenoo added. “Each area is specific. We don’t believe that one size fits all.”
Campaigners say the global campaign is slowly bearing fruit, but there have been setbacks.
One concern is the medicalisation of FGM in some countries. Two years ago Indonesia issued a regulation authorising doctors, nurses and midwives to perform FGM.
Indonesia says it wants to stop injuries and deaths caused by traditional cutters, but campaigners say the government is legitimising a major human rights abuse.
Activists are also keeping a close eye on Egypt. FGM was outlawed in 2008 but some Islamist politicians who won power this year have defended it.
Campaigners say that even with a U.N. resolution banning FGM, it could take decades to eradicate the practice.
However, Bonino is an optimist. She says change can come fast if the political will is there.
“Of course it is a very old tradition so it will not end tomorrow, but I think that we can really hope to get rid of it in one generation, which is quite something,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Annya Schneider)
Emma Bonino and Khady Koita will be speaking about FGM at Trust Women, a global women’s rights conference hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune in London in December.
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on FGM