On Thursday, SIHA joined the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting – an invasive violation of the rights of women and girls that is pervasive in the Horn of Africa.

FGM/C is still practiced throughout the greater Horn of Africa region, where prevalence rates range between 99.1% and 0.3%1. While the very low rates in Uganda and South Sudan are to be celebrated, a low rate is still not acceptable for such a gross violation of human rights.

FGM/C is often backed by religious misconceptions, particularly in Islam. However, FGM/C predates the emergence of both Christianity and Islam in Africa and is also practiced by several non-Muslim communities, such as Coptic, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, and Jews. While it is true that religious leaders often preach that FGM/C is desirable, permissible, or even that it is required, FGM/C is not required by the Quran, the Torah, or the Bible. The rise of political Islam that relies on the repression of women has included FGM/C happily to their long lists of tools for regulating women bodies, public presence, and social interaction.

One of the most overriding challenges to eradicating FGM is that it is justified by the unjust belief that women’s bodies and sexuality should be strictly controlled. Throughout the Horn of Africa, virginity is often viewed as a pre-requisite for marriage, and is equated to women honoring their heritage and communities. FGM/C is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and thereby lessen temptations to extramarital sex, thereby preserving a girl’s virginity. Moreover, type III2  is believed to provide new husbands with the means to confirm their new brides’ virginity. Another harmful, gender-based rationale for FGM/C is the belief that female genitalia is ugly and/or unclean and girls/women become more sexually desirable and/or marriageable when parts of their genitalia are removed and/or altered.

Many in the international community have a propensity to reduce all the gender-based oppression women face to FGM/C. While emphatically supporting the abolition of FGM/C in all its forms, SIHA underscores the reality that FGM/C is merely a symptom of a deeply rooted and institutionalized culture of gender inequality which subordinates women and girls by controlling their bodies and sexuality.

Against this background, SIHA believes that there should be a concerted effort by governments, civil society, health care providers, cultural and religious leaders to take a bold stand against FGM/C. Consequently, communities must be engaged collectively to shift the gendered, societal beliefs and norms that underpin the practice within the communities through well-thought-out advocacy campaign along with awareness sessions, education and active dialogue with all constituencies. Research shows that making communities aware of the negative health impacts of FGM/C is a powerful method of combating the practice

In furtherance to challenging the norms and attitudes that legitimize FGM/C, SIHA upholds that the provisions within the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) specifically Article 5 on the elimination of harmful traditional practices, and several other that articles indirectly oppose it as a violation of the human rights of women and girls, must be applied to legislation at all levels for those nations that have signed and ratified the instrument. Therefore, the governments of Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan must ratify the Maputo Protocol. Likewise, the governments of Somalia and Sudan must ratify CEDAW which also challenges the norms and beliefs that perpetuate FGM/C.

Although CEDAW General Recommendation No. 14 on Female Circumcision, recommends the criminalization of all forms of FGM/C, SIHA takes a strong stand against its criminalization. This is for several reasons:

  • Criminalization of FGM/C might seem well-intended, but it is actually highly ineffective3 because it does not address the root cause of FGM/C – which is cultural;
  • Criminalization results in an increased number of concealed and clandestine circumcisions performed by less experienced practitioners, which put more women and girls at risk of health complications and death;
  • In the highly gender-discriminatory legal/judicial environments of many Horn of Africa countries, criminalization opens the door for mass incarceration of women as mothers, grandmothers and midwives are typically the ones who perform FGM/C.

    Type I: partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the retractable skin which partially covers the clitoris
    Type II: partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora and possibly also removal of the labia majora
    Type III: reduction of the vaginal opening to a very small hole, usually by stitching together the labia minora and/or labia majora (though other methods such as leg-binding are also employed). This form of FGM/C sometimes involves cutting and repositioning of the labia and/or removal of the clitoris. This is the most severe form of FGM/C and is also known as infibulation or the pharaonic type. 
    Type IV: any other procedure which damages or alters female genitalia without medical cause and without health benefits, such as pricking, pulling, or cauterization.
    2 https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2020/the-last-cutting-season/index.html;
    https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation; https://www.28toomany.org/continent/africa/
    3 The ineffectiveness of criminalization is glaringly evident in countries like Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia, where prevalence rates range from 83% to 98% despite criminalization – https://www.28toomany.org/continent/africa/