The World Health Organisation now estimates that some 130 million women and girls, mainly in Africa, have been subjected to genital mutilation, with between two and three million more undergoing this barbaric practice each year. At a conference held at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices to mark the 4th Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, the participants heard speakers from WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, the African Union and the Inter-African Committee describe their uphill struggle to rid the planet of this terrible scourge.
The difficulties are immense, since the practice is deeply embedded in local culture throughout many parts of Africa. For many young girls, to refuse excision of the clitoris would be to render themselves un-marriageable, and to be faced with rejection by their families and communities. Many prefer the pain and humiliation to such a prospect. Yet the fact that pre-pubescent girls accept to have their clitorises and/or labia removed and their vaginas sewn partly closed is used by some advocates for the continuation of this practice as “proof” that the practice is welcomed! Countless girls have died as a direct result of infection following the operation typically carried out by traditional practitioners under unhygienic conditions, and many more as a result of later problems in pregnancy and childbirth. Proponents of the practice argue that the solution is to have the operation performed by qualified medical practitioners and indeed some 90% of the mutilations carried out in Egypt are now performed by qualified doctors. It seems that the cultural imperative even outweighs the ethical principles of “first, do no harm”, and “informed consent”.
The IAC and its national groups throughout Central and North Africa have taken a multi-targeted approach to the elimination of this practice, via youth groups, training programs for community and religious leaders, and retraining schemes for the knife-women who typically perform the cutting. Their effort have been marked by some considerable success, but with a budget of only $5 million a year they are only beginning to have an impact, while the numbers of girls subject to the practice (largely due simply to population growth) is rising annually. One speaker compared the trickle of funds available to combat FGM with the hundreds of millions available in the fight against AIDS, even though far more girls suffer from FGM than are infected with HIV, and suggested a possible reason: FGM only affects women.
Another issue is the role of men in the continuation of the practice. Many men believe that sewing their woman’s vagina shut while they are away on a trip will keep her chaste. Others believe that the smaller orifice will give them greater pleasure. But as one speaker from the floor (a Libyan woman in a hijab) pointed out “The men don’t know what they are missing! Surely it’s more satisfying to have sex with a woman who enjoys it rather than with a frustrated woman who finds the entire experience painful”.
Another group doing excellent work against FGM is Target Human Rights, a small German human rights organisation, led by husband and wife team, Rüdiger Nehberg and Annette Weber. They decided since the majority of girls subjected to FGM are Muslim to confront FGM in an unconventional way. They succeeded in enlisting the support of some of the world’s leading Islamic scholars in having the practice declared incompatible with the ethics of Islam. The work of Target was shown in a 60-minute documentary on ARTE, a French language channel, on 6th February.
At the meeting in Geneva, IHEU representative Roy Brown spoke about the conference held at Al-Azhar University in November last year, and what can only be described as a breakthrough in the fight against FGM: a declaration by the leading Islamic scholars including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, that FGM is crime against humanity. (See box item).
One speaker complained that the declaration from the conference did not have the status of a fatwa from Al-Azhar, while another said we should not rely on religious leaders to bring about change. Brown replied that we are not relying on religious leaders alone to bring about change, but must use every weapon available to us in the struggle. Legislation outlawing FGM is also necessary, but we know that in the end it is only efforts at the grass-roots that will bring about a change in attitudes.
We wish to bring to the attention of today’s meeting the important decision issued by a conference of leading Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University on 22-23 November 2006.
The decision outlaws female genital mutilation for all Muslims.
The conference, organized by the German human rights group Target, pronounced the custom of FGM as “punishable aggression” and “a crime against humanity”.
This decision, considered binding on all Muslims, will have enormous implications in the fight against FGM.
Until this decision, Islamic leaders had satisfied themselves with statements such as “FGM is a cultural practice” and “FGM has nothing to do with Islam” without condemning it explicitly. Now however, the practice has been deemed a crime and the decision, having been made by the leading authorities in Sunni Islam, is binding on all Muslims.
The conference was held under the patronage of the Grand Mufti Mufti of Egypt, Prof. Dr. Ali Goma’a. The other scholars attending the conference were:
the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar: Prof Dr. Mohamed Sayedantawi
the Minister of Religion of Egypt: Prof. Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk;
Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi from Qatar;
Sheikh Hissein Hassan Abkar from Chad; Imam Mahammadou Diallo from Mali;
Imam Bal El Bechir from Mauritania;
Sheikh Mohamed Darassa from Ethiopia, and
Imam Tarafa Baghrajati from Austria.
We urge all concerned governments, international organizations, the press and NGOs to publicize this crucial decision.