An Ancient African Custom Comes under Fire Women's Groups Fight to Ban Cruel Practice of Female Circumcision

By Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 1994 | Go to article overview

An Ancient African Custom Comes under Fire Women's Groups Fight to Ban Cruel Practice of Female Circumcision


Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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