An Ancient African Custom Comes Under Fire

Women's groups fight to ban cruel practice of female circumcision

AN older woman tugs forcefully on the arm of a teenage girl trying to escape her.

``I don't want to die,'' the young girl shouts as she struggles to free herself. ``I want to live.''

The scene, enacted at an outdoor theater here recently, and filmed for distribution throughout Mali by a local womens' rights organization, is the latest sign of a small, but growing effort in Africa to try to stamp out an age-old sometimes-fatal tradition: female genital mutilation.

FGM is primarily an African issue, widely practiced in Ethiopia, parts of Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, and across the Sahel, a string of dry countries between East and West Africa that includes Mali, says Cole Dodge, director of UNICEF's regional office in Nairobi, Kenya.

In Ethiopia, opponents of the tradition launched a quarterly newsletter in October aimed at providing information on the dangers of the tradition and the myths that perpetuate it.

``Female genital mutilation is the most widespread form of torture in the world,'' according to an editorial in the first issue of the newsletter, published by the National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia (NCTPE).

``It is also one of the most painful,'' the editorial continues. ``At least 80 million living African girls and women are victims of this trauma. It is inflicted upon millions more every year.''

NCTPE has enlisted both Christian and Muslim religious leaders in educational efforts aimed at ending the tradition. The organization also uses a film and seminars to make women aware of the tradition and its harmful effects.

Traditional belief holds that FGM, also known as female circumcision, helps preserve chastity and that without it, women are not fit for marriage.

It's a very deep-seated tradition in many families, says Mhdame Bintu Bouare Sameke, a member of the Association of Malian Court Lawyers (AMCL), which opposes the practice. ``It's the grandmothers who insist,'' she says. ``They say: `I did it; you do it.' ''

The operation is performed on girls from the age of one month up to their teens, she says.

Though the tradition predates Islam, FGM has become ``primarily an Islamic custom,'' Mr. Dodge says. But in countries observing the tradition, it is also followed by many other religious groups. Muslim scholars disagree over whether the tradition is supported by Islam or not, the NCPTE notes.

Here in Mali, several womens' organizations are preparing to lobby the National Assembly for passage of a law banning FGM. They plan to bring in medical experts to testify as to the dangers of the tradition. Often the operation is performed under unsanitary conditions by untrained women, critics here contend.

``We've seen a lot of girls die'' as a result of FGM,'' says Fatimata Dumbia Dembele, president of the AMCL, whose organization has held public seminars here on the issue. ``It has to stop.''

But years of speaking out against the tradition by womens' groups such as hers has had little effect, Mrs. Dembele admits. ``We have to make people afraid,'' she insists.

If a law is passed against the tradition, ``We're going to the villages at the season when they are performing excision [the form of FGM widely used in Mali, a more severe form of surgery than circumcision]. We'll put them in jail - the operators and the mothers as accomplices,'' she says, surprising another AMCL member sitting next to her with the forcefulness of her statement.

But, Dembele admits, ``Society accepts it. When the society accepts it, the law can't stop it.''

The issue of FGM has ``outraged'' the women's movement worldwide, says UNICEF's Dodge. In Africa the ``very strong, very outspoken'' critics tend to be ``middle and upper-class intellectuals,'' he adds.

Strong opposition to FGM in the past, if seen as Western-backed opposition, has sometimes led to a strong reaction, Dodge says. When British colonial authorities in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, outlawed FGM, it sparked a strong ``cultural backlash'' against the British, he says.

Mali's Attorney GeneralManassa Danioko contends the anti-FGM campaign in her country is a ``Western idea, not Malian.''

Asked if this is true, H. Assa Diallo Soumare, president of the Action Committee for the Rights of Women and Children, says emphatically: ``No, no, no, no.'' Her organization is sponsoring the anti-FGM film being made here.

But Western organizations have contributed to anti-FGM efforts in Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, the NCTPE is funded primarily by Western government and private agencies, plus several United Nations agencies.

At the filmmaking here, some Malians standing at the back of the crowd, who happened to come by out of curiosity, gave a range of views on FGM.

``It's fine,'' says one young lady about the tradition, speaking to this reporter out of earshot of others. ``It's no problem.'' She says it is not a health risk either.

``I'm in a Muslim family,'' a young man says. ``Excision is permitted. But one should not perform it.''

FGM reduces ``sexual feelings'' on the part of the woman, says Kande Drame, a high school student. ``It is encouraged by old women. They say it purifies the woman,'' he adds.

A young lady carrying a baby wrapped onto her back, and balancing on her head a tray of bananas she has been selling, says: ``It [FGM] applies to some as part of our custom. The people in the bush [rural areas] accept it, but those of us with education are against it.''

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