When a law sweeps in, tradition lashes back

Senegal has suddenly become a testing ground in Africa for ways to change an age-old practice abhorred by the Western world.

Until recent years, foreign groups and local officials fought female circumcision - or what opponents call female genital mutilation - with education.

But last month, Senegal became the latest country to make the practice a crime. Many foreign groups backed this legal approach.

A popular backlash, however, has supporters of the law quickly backtracking. And critics, who estimate more than 1 million Senegalese could go to jail, say a coercive law hurts efforts to end the practice by persuasion. Last April, on her second visit to Senegal, Hillary Clinton praised villagers who have ended the practice of female circumcision in their villages. "It was not easy for women and men to come together to stand against and speak out against a key ancient custom," she said.

Now this voluntary change - this "great movement," as she called it - has been stalled by resistance to changing the custom under force of the law, which sets a prison term of between six months and five years for anyone practicing female circumcision or influencing others to do so.

More than 130 million women in at least 28 African countries have undergone some form of the procedure. Many have experienced health problems, particularly when giving birth.

The law comes after intense lobbying from international development organizations to end what is officially called female genital mutilation (FGM). Most Senegalese in the ethnic groups that maintain the custom are expected to defy the ban.

The law has little support even among local opponents of FGM. They say change can come only through education. Last year a local organization called Tostan had some success getting villages to stop. It simply informed them of the health risks and encouraged discussion.

But now, with the backlash from the law, the director of Tostan, Molly Melching, says she has had to suspend some activities: "People are people everywhere - when you have something imposed on you, all of a sudden you have more resistance to listening to the dangers and the reasons why you would want to stop."

Ms. Melching, born in the United States, says that at first she also lobbied for the law. "I thought it was wonderful idea. But, as I discussed it with the villagers, they felt it was too soon," she says.

"People in Europe and America think that the law means the end of FGM. What they don't realize is that it can actually do more harm than good."

Villages declare a ban

Last year 31 villages publicly declared that they would ban the practice.

"Tostan instructors didn't pressure them," says Melching. "We just showed them how they can effect change in their communities."

Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which funds Tostan, hailed the decision of the villages as the "spark" that began Senegal's "movement to end FGM." But, since the passing of the new law, some villagers say they may no longer be able to abide by the declaration, because it is the "spark" that has turned relatives and friends in the neighboring villages into criminals.

Ms. Bellamy calls the law "a testament to the courage" of the women from the villages that made the declaration, saying they traveled to Senegal's capital, Dakar, to lobby parliament "to abolish the practice."

But the villagers went to explain why prohibition would not help their cause at this time. Senegal's women parliamentarians listened to the pleas and recommended implementation of the law be delayed for two years.

The recommendation was ignored. Even many parliamentarians in the ruling party said they were against the legislation as it stood, but they "maintained party discipline" and rubber-stamped the law.

Most Senegalese who uphold the custom were not even aware that the government was going to make it a crime. Even local leaders involved in the issue say they didn't know about the law until it had passed. But for almost a year drafts were circulated to the representatives of the US, France, and UN development organizations based in Dakar.

Off the record, some representatives say the law is mostly for Western consumption. It was pushed through a month before the US State Department's annual country report on human rights is to be released. The report lists those African governments that have banned FGM and those that have not, and it is used as a guide for Congress and US agencies on how to apportion military and financial assistance.

"What's wrong with setting conditions to get countries to conform to international standards of human rights?" asks a US Foreign Service official.

Plenty, says Senegalese opposition parliamentarian Jean Paul Diaz. "The law has not only undermined local efforts to stop female circumcision, it has undermined our democratic process," he says, noting the irony of individuals' rights being dictated by outside forces rather than presented to the individuals for debate.

Mr. Diaz goes on to say the law is unconstitutional. "The very first paragraph of Senegal's Constitution states that the government must respect the beliefs of its citizens," he says. "We should have laws stopping anyone harming a woman's health, but the government has no right to criminalize a cultural practice that people have believed in for more than a thousand years."

Traditional leaders are even more irate. "I will go to jail if need be," says Muntaga Tall, supreme Islamic leader of the Toucouleur people, who leads by example. "In fact, I will happily die, rather than be forced to renounce what I believe."

Though the practice is not common among Muslims in Arab countries, the Toucouleur and other Muslim societies in Africa consider the circumcision of girls as much a religious requirement as the circumcision of boys.

"Misogyny cannot continue to be hidden under the rubric of 'traditional practices,' " says Ms. Bellamy, the UNICEF chief in New York. The declaration of the 31 villages was possible only because of "the women's determination to overcome deep-seated beliefs [of their] husbands and male village elders," she says.

According to Melching in Senegal, however, men in the villages had been among the most vocal opponents of the practice. "Women are in fact the guardians of this tradition" she says. "What outsiders don't realize is that they do it out of love for their daughters. They are just not aware of the health risks."

Before the law, Mr. Tall made no objections to Tostan's activities in the Toucouleur region and, according to Melching, some villages there were on the verge of making the public declaration to end the practice. That is now one of the places Tostan has suspended its activities.

Backing down after backlash

Faced with the backlash, UNICEF Senegal has not been as supportive of the law as UNICEF New York.

"The passage of the law was not an explicit policy of UNICEF, nor were we aiming at the law," says Augusto Paganini, UNICEF's local resident representative. "It was a sovereign decision of this government," he says, adding that, indeed, it "is not the best instrument to help the small minority of women, which have denounced and abandoned female genital mutilation, to become a majority."

So who was behind the law? When the sponsor of the legislation, Minister of Justice Serigne Diop, was asked, he, like Bellamy, pointed to the women from the 31 villages. After being reminded that they called for a delay, he changed tack, saying simply that the government made the law "as a matter of principle," also insisting it was a sovereign decision.

An official at the Ministry of Women, Children, and Family produced a pile of government documents demonstrating outside pressure. The letter from Senegal's prime minister calling on the ministry to help draft the law begins by stating that a UN human rights committee had made a "recommendation." The ministry official also brought forth a study financed by UNICEF on ways the government should harmonize national laws in accordance with UN conventions. That study includes a draft for a proposed law on FGM.

The legal consultant who made the study, Dior Fall Sow, became the head of the team that eventually drafted the actual law. She says UNICEF pledged assistance to translate the law into national languages. UNICEF Senegal denies that claim.

UNICEF New York cites its efforts to ban the "mutilation" of more than 2 million African women a year. In nearby Burkina Faso it helped "secure passage of legislation that makes FGM punishable by prison terms ranging from 6 months to 10 years." Several other African governments have also legislated against FGM. Guinea has the death penalty for offenders.

'You can't outlaw cultural practices'

But few of the millions of Africans who maintain the custom have lodged protests, perhaps because no government since independence has ever tried to enforce them.

"You simply can't outlaw cultural practices," says political scientist Gerry Mackie, who has also researched attempts earlier this century to outlaw footbinding in China. "Criminal law works only when the criminals are the minority. It is not possible to criminalize the entirety of the population, or the entirety of a discrete and insular minority of the population, without the methods of mass terror. People have to decide to stop on their own."

Diaz predicts that if the law were implemented, it would drive the practice underground. As with abortion, "there would be backroom circumcisions in unhygienic conditions," he says. There are also concerns the law could increase tensions between minority ethnic groups that practice female circumcision in Senegal and the dominant group, the Wolof, who do not.

But others maintain that in a few months the whole issue will be forgotten.

"No one is really going to go to jail," says Momar Lo, the ruling party parliamentarian who introduced the bill to parliament. "The government will ensure the courts don't apply the law."

Melching is confident Tostan will soon be able to resume its activities. She is even hopeful that 10 villages that were planning to publicly renounce female circumcision before it was illegal may still soon do so.

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