IRIN interview with Daniela Colombo, an advocacy expert on FGM

IRIN interview with Daniela Colombo, president of the Italian Association for Women in Development (AIDOS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded in Rome in 1981 by Colombo and other women development professionals and activists to carry out the objectives of the UN Decade for Women.

Colombo is a leading advocacy expert on female genital mutilation (FGM), with nearly 30 years’ experience fighting its harmful practices. She spoke on the subject at the sub-regional conference on FGM, held in February 2005 in Djibouti City, Djibouti.

QUESTION: How does AIDOS help to influence or empower women’s NGOs in Africa in relation to FGM?

ANSWER: We have been working in Africa for almost 20 years. Actually, the first project we executed was the national campaign against FGM in Somalia, which started in 1986, and we have continuously supported the Somali women for the past 15 years. Most of our activities in Africa concern FGM – we see FGM as part of our initial agenda.

Our role has always been to train teams of people that can do research and development training materials, and carry out the campaigns themselves. We believe that we should do capacity building. We train local staff with local partner NGOs – we don’t believe in aid or welfare projects; we’re not missionaries. I have respect for them, but they never work in ongoing development.

We think the role of NGOs – national or international – is to show what the needs of women and men are, in order to help change government policies; then they lobby their own governments.

Q: With respect to FGM, what goals has AIDOS accomplished recently?

A: We have just finalised a manual that was financed by the World Bank … This is the manual on FGM for training government officials and the programme officers of NGOs on two development projects, because we want to integrate the struggle for FGM into all ongoing projects and programmes. The manual was created by AIDOS experts, in collaboration with the Centre for Reproductive Rights in New York, who have been our partners for a long time. We tested the manual for two weeks in a training course, where we had skilled trainers for Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Eritrea.

Now, we have to raise funds to implement the manual and we’ll start with Kenya, Sudan, then Tanzania; we’ve started health counselling centres in Burkina Faso. It’s the first time we’ve experimented with the methodology of the health counselling centre, with an integrated approach which will give menopausal care, gynaecological care, prenatal care – you know, we look at everything, including psychological, legal and social assistance. The centres will also work with hospitals on FGM. This is a new approach.

Q: What role would you like to see the media play with respect to FGM?

A: The international media are crucial. Of course, the radio is the most important way to discuss FGM in many of the countries we work in – people tune in their radio at home or in the car – we find the radio to be a very important medium. Television is always great – sometimes many people watch television. We have to organise our message through these media and the print media: we are training our people on how to hold and conduct interviews, so that our message is spread in a much clearer way as well.

Q: Do you support any type of legal sanctions against countries that do not pass legislation banning FGM?

A: In Africa the legislation that has been passed has been very punitive laws. We are against punishment – we believe criminal law is not the solution. You have to do training and help even the minds of the men – throwing them in jail is not the solution.

On sanctions – I do not believe this is the solution. We have to keep up our programmes: if you attack different countries’ values, they will close themselves off and then we can do nothing.

Q: Do you find that support amongst the religious leaders is serious? Are they beginning to take this issue seriously?

A: All religions have been against FGM, so this issue of FGM being an Islamic issue – I mean, we know that female circumcision was in Africa long before Islam came to Africa, before Christianity came. The reason I believe it has prevailed in Africa is because Islam has adapted itself better than Christianity, regarding FGM. We have seen many religious leaders talking about every form of FGM.

The debate here [at the Djibouti conference] has been about it being a crime. But remember, there is one religious leader who has never talked against FGM and this is the Pope [John Paul II], the leader of the Catholic church. In Ethiopia FGM is practiced by all the religions.