Women performing excisions in Burkina Faso are cutting babies instead of young girls to escape increased scrutiny, according to the government and organisations fighting female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
FGM/C has been outlawed in Burkina Faso since 1996 and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and US$1500 in fines. In the years following the law the number of FGM/C victims younger than five years old increased from 20 percent in 1998 to 31 percent in 2003, according to the government.
At least 70 newborns nationwide were admitted for hospital emergency care after botched cuttings in the first three months of 2008, according to the government.
Babies’ screams are often hidden from unsuspecting neighbours during noisy cutting ceremonies, according to the government’s National Committee Against FGM/C, known as CNLPE.
FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as any injury to female genital organs for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.
WHO has stated that consequences can include lifelong debilitating psychological and physical trauma – such as extreme pain during childbirth, sexual relations and urination. Some three million girls, the majority under 15 years old, are cut every year.
“It is a perverse effect of our denunciation and awareness campaign that to avoid being caught they [circumcisers] turn to babies who can undergo FGM/C unnoticed,” said CNLPE’s permanent secretary Marie Rose Sawadogo.
The fact that people have “developed strategies to violate the  law” means some communities still do not understand why they need to abandon FGM/C, said Brigitte Yameogo with the non-profit Mwangaza Action. (Mwangaza means “light” in Swahili.)
In a 2008 survey the NGO conducted in the capital Ouagadougou, a majority of the 140 residents surveyed reported returning to their villages or finding remote areas to have their babies cut.
Pascaline Sebgo, an adviser in charge of FGM/C control for the German aid agency GTZ, told IRIN newborn victims are even more vulnerable at the hands of aging cutters.
“Most of the circumcisers are old, cannot see well and just cut what they feel in their hands,” Sebgo told IRIN. She added that the average age of cutters has not changed much since a 1996 government survey reported 58 as the average age, with some cutters working into their 80s.
The new fight
Prevalence of FGM/C in Burkina Faso had dropped from 77 percent in the 1990s to less than 50 percent among women 15 to 49 years old in 2005, according to CNLPE.
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But some leaders are still resisting pressure to wipe out FGM/C, said Mwangaza Action’s Yameogo.
“FGM/C is still a reality in Burkina Faso and populations strongly believe that the practice is rooted in their traditional values,” she told IRIN. “Though some traditional chiefs publicly denounce FGM/C, they still favour the practice in private.”
Yameogo said anti-FGM/C messages can get lost in nationwide “massive campaigns” and that FGM/C supporters may better “understand the heart of the [cutting] problem” if they are approached in smaller settings.
The government’s Sawadogo told IRIN the increase in newborn FGM/C victims [since adoption of 1996 law] does not cancel out previous gains made in the fight against FGM/C, but that new strategies are needed to stop those who “thwart the law” by cutting younger and younger girls.
But she said that since 2004 the government has not had funds to run anti-FGM/C campaigns.
GTZ's technical adviser Sebgo said CNLPE has lacked “clear objectives” and is working from an outdated action plan.
Sebgo said GTZ will work with partners to increase funding as soon as the government adopts a new anti-FGM/C action plan, which is being finalised.