West African religious and traditional leaders meeting with political officials this week 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 Faso’s national assembly, told reporters on Sunday, the opening day of a conference gathering politicians, health and human rights NGOs, religious experts and traditional leaders in the Senegalese capital.
The UN World Health Organisation says three million girls per year undergo some form of genital cutting, mainly in 28 countries of Africa and the Middle East.
“The most prevalent justification for the practice is that tradition requires it, but it is not required by tradition,” Traore said.
The conference was organised by the Senegalese National Assembly and the African Parliamentary Union in cooperation with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the UN Children’s 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 women’s 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. “It’s a requirement in the Koran.”
Guinea has one of the highest levels of FGM prevalence in the region, with an estimated 99 percent 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 God’s creation is an atrocity inspired by the devil.”
“The preservation of the human body is a right in Muslim culture,” Kebe said, adding that the body cannot be mutilated, except in a case of criminal punishment or for medical reasons.
FGM takes three main forms - removal of the clitoris; removal of the clitoris and inner labia; and infibulation, in which all the external genital organs are removed before the vagina is sewn shut, leaving only a small opening to allow urination and menstruation.
The procedure can cause haemorrhaging, cysts, incontinence, sexual dysfunctions and sterility. FGM also carries a risk of HIV infection and difficulties in childbirth.
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.
“I have enough influence [as a traditional chief] that what I say will be followed,” Traore said. “This is a huge advantage. This is why religious [and traditional] authorities must be a key target…so they can act in their communities.”
Kebe said religious leaders too need to take the fight against FGM to their followers.
“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, he said.
If not seen as a religious mandate, female genital cutting 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.
“[FGM] and circumcision were linked to initiation,” Traore said. “But in the majority of African societies initiation does not take place as in the past.”
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.
“The authorities came and met with us recently and told us to abandon our scissors [used for FGM],” Maferin Conte, a midwife at Madina Maternity in Conakry, told IRIN. “Since that day, I stopped doing it.”
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.
At the parliamentarians’ conference, Traore said in Africa certain practices are mistakenly taken as values. “Cultural values - such as solidarity, community, and naming rituals - are different from cultural practices that one can abandon without abandoning [African values],” he said.
“It is far more important to me to give my daughter a Senoufo name than to have her be cut.”