Interview on FGM with NGO Equality Now director Faiza Mohamed

Equality Now is an international NGO that strives to end violence and discrimination against women through the mobilisation of public pressure. In an interview at the Conference on the Status of Women (Beijing +10) in New York, Equality Now's Africa Regional Director, Faiza Jama Mohamed, told IRIN that while ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was one of its key goals, its success in many countries was dependent on the political will and active participation of regional governments.

QUESTION: How would you characterise the issue of FGM today? Is it entrenched in cultural practice? Is it acceptable in the cultural context?

ANSWER: People are very aware of FGM, and it has been going on for a long time. Over the last 20 years, it is no longer a taboo subject. People can talk about it and have a debate about it. While it is often given as a cultural practice, some people have thought that it is mandated by religion, and use this as a basis to justify FGM. But it has more to do with myths that are rooted in culture.

For example, one of the reasons given [by practitioners of FGM in Kenya and Somalia] is that if a child is not circumcised as part of the rights of passage, she will never grow up and she will always be considered a child.

This is about virginity control and making sure that by the time a girl can be married, there is a connection between virginity and circumcision. It's a way of preventing sexual intercourse before she gets married, because whoever is going to marry her demands an untouched woman. He is paying a dowry for her to the family. That's the connection. So those are the reasons.

Q: What progress has been made to reduce FGM in Somalia since the 1980s?

A: Activists campaigning against the practice in Somalia focus on engaging the religious groups who administer the practice, to inform them that [the ritual] is not required by Islam, and there is no mention in the Koran about FGM. They also quote [Koranic] verses where mutilation - and where harming people, and animals - is prohibited. While people agree with this, they stop short from saying that there should be no FGM at all and refer to 'Hadith' [verbal narrations passed down through generations], which is the saint's of the prophet's narration as justification for FGM.

Q: So historically, was the reason for FGM more religious or cultural in places like Somalia and Ethiopia?

A: The bottom line is that it is cultural, but religion has been given as a reason. You have to realise that before Islam, people had many different practices, which have been discouraged by Islam. For example, they used to bury girls alive. They used to have 100 wives, now limited to four wives with conditions, which are mostly not respected. So by and large, generations and generations of people still stick to some of these practices, even though the prophet was quoted as telling woman not to undergo this.

Q: While you ultimately need to tackle the practice at the community level, what role does the global community have, and can it have a significant influence [on ending the practice of FGM]?

A: Well, first it has to be recognised as a human-rights violation. It is unnecessary, and doctors have come out to say that it is dangerous for women. It results in a lot of pain, complications and difficulty for women, as well as men.

We need a strong political will to end the practice. You have to have more than a law against it. Government authorities have to put in resources to educate people against the practice, to prosecute those responsible, and to have strong rules for their medical practitioners.

In some places people are going to hospitals, and they are getting it done there, even though there is a law in place criminalising the practice. In many countries, it is largely left to NGOs to tackle the practice, and they are not well resourced, and are not able to reach out to many communities. It's like a drop in the ocean.

This is why it is important to have governments - through UN conventions - recognise this as a human-rights violation, and call to end it. Recently, the African Union has adopted a protocol on the rights of women, which specifically criminalises the practice of FGM, and obliges the government to put in place programmes and resources to end it.

Q: Are governments refusing to recognise this as a problem?

A: No. Many governments accept the problem but they lack an approach to deal with it. There is an excuse that the law itself is not going to make a difference until we are able to educate people. But the work of educating people is being left to NGOs.

A good example of where progress has been made is in Burkina Faso, where the government has made investments in ending the practice. Their last survey showed a dramatic reduction in the prevalence of FGM. In places with a 94 percent prevalence, it has dropped to 2 percent.

Q: What was so successful about the Burkina Faso example?

A: First, Burkina Faso has a law against FGM, which is critical as it is a formal expression of the government to say [that] the practice is unacceptable. Then, they have invested in informing the community publicly through radio.

They established a hotline where people can alert the authorities of an initiation happening. If you don't report it and are then found guilty of knowing of an initiation, then you are liable to go to jail, even though you didn't participate in the act. So this has created fear within the communities. In addition, the authorities have been monitoring what has been happening in the community.

Q: So the government setting and enforcing a law, and following up, has been the key to progress here?

A: They have also prosecuted people. Combining this with education was the key, and this is what most governments are not doing. It is good to know that there are 14 countries that have put in place legislation in Africa, out of the 28 countries where there is FGM practice.

But these countries need to put more into the pot. At the moment, Equality Now has been doing a campaign for the past two years in Tanzania. Tanzanian girls have been running to the local police when they come to realise that they are going to be mutilated, but the police just give them back to the parents, instead of following this up and warning that they might be prosecuted - and again ensuring that the girl has not undergone the practice.

This has created some embarrassment for the government because although they have a law, they cannot protect the girls. There are efforts to train the police by NGOs. The police commissioners claim their training programmes have comprehensive human-rights packages, which include handling the FGM issue, but we still don't see results when it comes to implementation.

Q: So government legislation is not enough? You still need to have active follow-up in communities?

A: Yes absolutely, full government support can criminalise the practice. But as long as the work is left to NGOs we will make changes here and there, but will be defeated by the lack of political will. Tanzania is a good example. The NGOs can raise awareness of the issue among girls, but when they run away they are sent back [by local authorities] and get mutilated.

Q: Is there a greater role for UN agencies in making this a priority with governments where FGM is common?

A: Absolutely - UNICEF is mandated to care for children. Many of those being mutilated are children of five years old. The agency has a responsibility to engage with governments and see that they resource and implement programmes to prevent FGM.