Bedouins shunning FGM/C - new research

Recently published research shows Bedouin tribes in Israel’s southern Negev area no longer practice female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

R.H. Belmaker, a professor of psychiatry at Ben Gurion University of the Negev who researched the issue 15 years ago and saw evidence of FGM/C, has returned to the same tribes in the Negev to discover a different reality.

The research was published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Vol 6.

“Our initial research in 1993 began after I gave a lecture… about human sexuality, when a Bedouin student raised the subject of ritual female genitalia surgery,” said Belmaker.

A team of two Israeli Arab male doctors and one female Bedouin social worker, set to work, Belmaker said. “After much research and investigation, we were able to reach women in the six tribes who allegedly performed the procedure.

“We found that FGM in the Bedouin tribes was actually more of a small cut on the clitoris rather than full or even partial clitoridectomy, as practiced in many African countries. The women’s ages ranged from 16 to 45 and all were Muslim. The younger women, even those who were students at the university at the time, told the researchers they would perform the ritual on their daughters when the time came.”

Belmaker said the practice was always carried out by the women themselves and that most of the men were not involved and knew nothing of the procedures. “It [FGM] was not done under pressure from the men in the tribes but rather as a social procedure carried out by the women, and was passed on from woman to daughter.”

In 2008, Belmaker returned to the same six tribes, using the same methodology and reaching the women through their gynaecologists. His team examined 132 women but no cases of any scarring of the kind reported in the previous study were found in women under 30. This was despite testimonies from a small percentage of the women that they had heard the practice was still going on.

The reasons for the disappearance of this ritual are not clear, as no official efforts were made by the Israeli government to stop the practice.

“An example of modernisation”

NGOs working with Bedouin women in the Negev such as Yasmin al-Nagab, an organisation which promotes health services and health awareness among Bedouin women - and Physicians for Human Rights which runs a women’s health project in the villages - agree that this is a rare practice nowadays, if it exists at all.

A doctor working at Soroka hospital in Beersheba, who declined to be named, told IRIN: “It is a delicate issue; we hardly hear of it now. We did have a case of FGM about six months ago brought to the hospital but this was a case of a family of African asylum-seekers, not Bedouins and it was an isolated case.''

Bedouin elders offer no explanation as to why FGM/C has apparently disappeared, but Belmaker believes it is a sign of the Bedouins’ assimilation into Western culture. “This is an example of modernisation. Even the women who told us they would perform the ritual on their daughters have not done so. Time is stronger than tradition.”