Women Call For Stiffer Female Circumcision Laws

Ghanaian women's rights groups have called for stronger laws against female genital mutilation (FGM) following two landmark rulings in northern Ghana against the traditional practice.

The Ghanaian Association for Women's Welfare (GAWW) has demanded that parents who allow their daughters to have their clitoris and sometimes other parts of their vagina removed by amateur surgeons should be liable for punishment, as well as those who actually perform the cuts.

The Ghana chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) has meanwhile called for stiffer penalties to be imposed on those who carry out the traditional operation.

FMG which is widely known as female circumcision, is designed to reduce the woman's sex drive and remove her temptation to have sex before marriage.

The practice was made illegal in Ghana in 1994 and those who perform the operation face a prison sentence of at least three years. However, FMG is still common in the north, where it was widely practised before the ban, and there are relatively few prosecutions.

"The law does not punish accomplices such as parents, family and community members who help the FGM practitioner," Florence Ali, the president of GAWW, told IRIN in an interview.

"If these collaborators are left free, this traditional practice will continue," she said.

Ali said the law should also make it an offence for parents to send their daughters to neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and Burkina Faso to be circumcised, pointing out that at present " it does not deal with cross-border FGM offenders."

In November, 2003, a Court in Ghana's Upper West Region jailed a 45-year old woman farmer, Fefe Dari, for five years for circumcising three girls, including a three-week old baby.

And earlier this month, another court in the adjoining Upper East Region slapped a five-year jail term on a 70-year old woman for circumcising seven girls.

Women's organisations say these convictions are evidence that some progress has been achieved in the bid to completely eliminate FGM, which often leads to medical complications and can leave a woman psychologically scarred for life.

Ali said public awareness programmes were gradually changing people's attitudes about female circumcision and many more people were now coming forward to report offenders to the police.

"The two jailed women were prosecuted based on tip-offs from people within their own communities," she noted.

GAWW is affiliated to the Addis Ababa-based Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children which aims to completely eliminate female circumcision in Africa by 2010.

Already GAWW and other non-governmental organisations involved in the campaign, have persuaded traditional chiefs in the Upper West Region to publicly condemn the custom as 'inhuman and degrading.' The chiefs have also been persuaded to warn their subjects of the dire legal consequences should they persist in continuing the practice.

However, many Ghanaian women's rights activists say the current law is too lenient. They are calling for stiffer penalties, particularly in cases where the practitioner circumcises two or more girls at the same time.

FIDA complains that Ghana's law against FGM is less comprehensive that that of neighbouring Burkina Faso. There, those who practise female circumcision can be jailed for up to 10 years if the victim bleeds to death.

"In all cases, FGM Victims are scarred for life. This amounts to an extremely serious human rights and medical violation. That is why stiffer sentences should be imposed to serve as a deterrent," Chris Dadzie, president of the Ghanaian section of FIDA, told IRIN.

The organisation of women lawyers wants the police, government prosecutors and the courts to become better informed about the law against FGM so that they become more proactive in prosecuting against the custom.

"It takes a highly informed Judiciary to make an accurate assessment on the damages of FGM and thereby prescribe stiffer sentences on offenders," Dadzie said.

GAWW's Ali said there were no reliable statistics on how many young girls were still being circumcised in northern Ghana since the practice had gone underground 10 years ago. FGM has always been rare in the more heavily populated south of the country where it was never a tribal tradition.