Djibouti has joined six other African states which have ratified the Maputo Protocol that seeks to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM), but observers say eradicating the practice in the Horn of Africa country remains a huge challenge.
Women from all over Africa, however, hailed the prime minister of Djibouti, Mohamed Dileita Dileita, as he ratified the protocol on 2 February. He also announced "the Djibouti Declaration", a statement that committed his country, which has a 98 percent FGM prevalence rate, to end the practice.
The ratification was done at a two-day subregional conference on FGM in the presence of representatives from the African Union (AU), No Peace without Justice (NPWJ), an Italian NGO, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The AU commissioner for infrastructure and energy, Bernard Zoba, lauded Djibouti's decision to ratify the protocol and urged more AU-member countries to follow suit to make the achievement enforceable.
"We are happy action has been taken and is being taken by AU-member states," Zoba said. "The question we should ask ourselves is, 'Can we act on those commitments?'
"The AU willingly accepted the challenge of FGM. But this action will not become law until we have the number of states needed to ratify the protocol within the AU," he added.
The Maputo Protocol
Adopted on 11 July 2003 as a protocol to the African Charter on People's and Human Rights in Maputo, Mozambique, it covers a broad range of women's rights, including the elimination of discrimination against women, the right to dignity, the right to life, the integrity and security of the person, the right to education and training, economic and social welfare rights and health and reproductive rights.
Article 5 of the protocol requires that all forms of female genital mutilation be condemned and prohibited.
The protocol requires ratification by 15 countries to enter into force. To date, Libya, Comoros, Rwanda, Namibia, Lesotho, Kenya and Djibouti have ratified the Maputo protocol. The AU, however, has no time limit required for the minimum number of countries needed to ratify the document.
It also covers various rights related to peace, education, marriage, participation in political processes, housing, food security and sustainable development, among other issues.
Adoption of a treaty or protocol means that the text of the treaty has been negotiated and agreed upon, without nations necessarily agreeing to be bound by it. Ratification occurs after signature, which is usually opened after adoption. Ratification is an indication of a country's commitment to be legally bound by the treaty or protocol.
By ratifying the document, Djibouti joins the list of AU-member countries leading the way towards official enforcement by the pan-African body.
Participants at the conference included delegates, diplomats, country representatives and religious leaders from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, the self-declared republic of Somaliland, Sudan, Yemen, Kenya, Mali, Senegal, Italy, the Netherlands, Djibouti, the US, the European Parliament, the AU and the UN.
They debated the range of topics surrounding FGM - mainly, whether or not religion endorses the practice, and how to stop the ritual.
Two separate thematic sessions - one comprised of delegates and diplomats, the second comprised of the religious leaders - tackled issues related to the position of Islam on FGM, the Maputo Protocol, implementation of legal and political instruments as a means of change and intervention in cultures.
"This is not just about mobilising women and girls," Nahla Al-Kaaky of the Woman's National Committee, an NGO promoting women's rights in Yemen, told delegates. "The decision-making powers reside with the men. The religious leaders are discussing the matter and there is much conflict, even amongst them."
Diariatou Kourouma, programme officer with the Inter-African Committee, an NGO dedicated to fighting FGM, posed the question whether Prophet Mohammed had the practice performed on his own family.
"Did the prophet practice this on his daughters, sisters or wife?" Kourouma said during one of the religious sessions. "It turns out that excision [removal of the entire clitoris along with part or all of the labia minora] existed before Islam came to Africa."
She added: "We need to study Iran and Iraq, who do not use this practice, but are Muslim countries. Are girls or women entitled to life over mutilation?"
Religious Leaders in Discussion
During the closing ceremonies, religious leaders spontaneously chose to ban the form of FGM that involves cutting the clitoral hood and partial to full removal of the clitoris itself.
The move came after women disagreed with the Muslim scholars. The women were incensed that the scholars had insisted that that clitoridectomy, or Type I female circumcision, was safe to practice if surgeons or trained, qualified excisors were available to perform such rites.
An excisor is the title given to the woman, usually an elder, who performs the act of circumcision.
Among the four types of FGM, clitoridectomy, which is referred to as Sunnah by those within the Islamic faith, involves cutting the clitoral hood, with or without the removal of part, or the entire clitoris.
Excision involves the removal of clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora while infibulation, which is referred to as Pharaonic by those within the Islamic faith, involves the removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia majora and labia minora) and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening.
Infibulation is very common within Djibouti.
The other type of FGM is unclassified, and involves all other operations on female genitalia, including: pricking, piercing, stretching, or incision of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterisation by burning the clitoris and surrounding tissues; Incisions to the vaginal wall; scraping or cutting of the vagina and surrounding tissues; and introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina.
Female Delegates Oppose Practise
Almost all women in attendance instantly began screaming "no" in reaction to what was perceived to be a perpetuation of the harmful practice, which affects women and children in 28 African countries, according to NPWJ.
"The [religious] leaders asked us to include the Sunnah [Type I] female circumcision - we should find specialists or surgeons wherever possible," Djibouti minister of Islamic affairs, Mogeh Dirire, told the conference.
The women, however, disrupted the session for some minutes. Five minutes later, the minister and other religious leaders relented and declared that clitoridectomy would not be accepted amongst their communities.
The 350 delegates were elated because the religious leaders at the conference had been considered fundamentalist in nature and unwilling to give in on this particular point.
Declaration Set Precedent
The Djibouti Declaration sets a precedent for its neighbours. It is the first country within its region to take on such a responsibility. The declaration states that there is "irrefutable evidence that there is no religious basis in the Qur'an - as well as in other revealed religions (Christianity and Judaism) - to justify the perpetuation of FGM".
The declaration also states that FGM is a "violation of human rights".
It recommends that all AU-member countries should ratify the Maputo Protocol, and urges Arab countries to encourage the Arab League "to include harmful practices in the Arab Charter for Human Rights as a regional mechanism for the protection of the human rights of women and girls".
The declaration also suggests that there should be more government-initiated and implemented programmes geared towards "informing and educating" communities about FGM.
Held under the theme "Towards a Political and Religious Consensus on FGM", the Djibouti meeting was aimed at helping discourage FGM in Djibouti and in the sub-region. It sought to build on the consensus against FGM at the highest levels of the government and within religious authorities.
According to NPWJ, who were co-sponsors of the conference along with UNICEF and the Djibouti government, 98 percent of women in Djibouti, a country of about 600,000 people, have been subjected to FGM.
More than 130 million women and girls have undergone FGM globally in countries ranging from Senegal and Mali to Yemen and Oman, according to UNICEF. It is also performed in some parts of southeast Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia.