No End in Sight: Female Mutilation Unabated

By Buckwalter, Rebecca | Harvard International Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

No End in Sight: Female Mutilation Unabated


Buckwalter, Rebecca, Harvard International Review


Progress on the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa has come to a halt as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa remains 12 votes from ratification in the African Union (AU). Also called the Maputo Protocol, the Protocol was formulated at the July 2003 conference of the AU in Maputo, Mozambique. Article 5 of this addendum to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights would prohibit, "through legislative measures backed by sanctions ... all forms of female genital mutilation."

So far, only Comoros, Libya, and Rwanda have ratified this protocol though female genital mutilation is banned by legislation in 14 African countries. Before the AU can enforce the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa for all 53 members of the African Union, 15 member countries must adopt the protocol.

Each year, two million girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab peninsula undergo FGM, a procedure that entails removal of part or all of the external female genitalia, often carried out in unsanitary conditions. Complications range from infection to death and because instruments are reused without sterilization, infections are transmitted from one woman to the other. Given the HIV/AIDS epidemic, efforts to eradicate this procedure have taken on a new sense of urgency.

The main obstacles to the ratification of the Protocol and the eradication of FGM are tradition and poverty. Although FGM predates Islam, the two existed simultaneously for hundreds of years and some sects of Islam, specifically those in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Chad, in addition to parts of the Middle East, believe that FGM is a religious practice. In fact, contrary to this belief, modern Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Women's League, cite specific passages in the Quran that state that mutually satisfying sexual relations in marriage are a gift from Allah. Nevertheless, traditional religious and cultural ties to FGM persist.

Adherents to FGM believe circumcision decreases a woman's sexual drive, thereby making her faithful and pure, augments a woman's fertility, improves her hygiene and aesthetic appeal, and creates binding sociological and cultural ties that she can never escape. To compound the problem, practitioners of FGM, or "cutters," encourage continuation of the practice because they often rely on performing circumcision for their livelihood. In Kenya, cutters earn approximately US$12.60 for each operation when 56 percent of other citizens earn less than US$1 per day.

In September of 2004, Kenya hosted the international Nairobi conference to explore strategies for ending FGM. …

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No End in Sight: Female Mutilation Unabated
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