Niger’s Minister for Social Development and Women's Affairs called on Friday for a government crackdown of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), widely known as female circumcision.
The practice was made illegal in this poor West African country three years ago, but it remains widespread and no-one has ever been prosecuted for performing the crude operation.
The minister, Abdoulwahid Halimatou Oueini, issued her appeal to mark the first ever world-wide Anti-FGM Day at a ceremony in the village of Komba, 28km south east of the capital Niamey.
Komba was chosen because, in 1994, it was the first village in Niger where local health officials denounced the practice, which is still carried out by a number ethnic groups in the region.
As the minister spoke, a group of 24 villages near the western town of Tillaberry issued a joint proclamation that they would abandon FMG, which has until now been widely practiced in these communities.
“Among certain ethnic groups, excision is a rights of passage for young women, a young woman who has not had the operation is subjected to ridicule by her peers and she will have great difficulty finding in marrying,” explained Selon Halilou Hassan, a traditional healer from the Boukoki suburb of the capital Niamey.
FGM generally involves the removal of a woman’s clitoris and parts of the external genitalia, to reduce the woman’s sex drive. Many in Niger, including some women, see this as a good thing.
“In effect the removal of the clitoris, a very sensitive organ, reduces the sex drive of a woman and guarantees a woman is faithful in her marriage,” explained Mariam Adamou, an old woman who also lives in Niamey.
Six ethnic groups which account for about a third of Niger's 11 million population practice female circumcision. They are the Peulh, Gourmantche, Djerma-Songhai, Kurtey Wogo and Arabs.
No recent figures are available as to the extent of the practice, which is carried out covertly.
Medical complications frequently occur and some girls even die, mainly from heavy bleeding. However, the traditional “exciseuses” that carry out the operation, usually with a razor blade in unsanitary conditions, are reluctant to take the girls to hospital.
“When a girl is injured and when she looses blood, you don’t take her to the hospital. You use acacia leaves to make a suture to calm the hemorrhage,” explained one practitioner who gave her name only as Haoua.
Girls are taken to Haoua for the crude operation before they reach the age of 15. Their parents pay her 500 CFA, about US$ 1, for her services. Some simply give her a grain as a gift.
The Niger government is concerned that besides damaging girls' health, the practice is also fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS through the use of non-sterilised blades.
In theory, persons convicted of carrying out the operation face a prison sentence of between 6 months and three years. That can rise to between 10 and 20 years if the girl dies of her wounds.
Trained doctors who carry out the procedure can be struck off for up to five years.
However, these laws have yet to put anyone in prison.
The World Day for Zero Tolerence of FGM, was established after the pan-African lobby group, the Inter-African Committee (IAC) met to seek ways of combating the practice last year.
According to the World Health Organisation, (WHO), up to 2 million girls are circumcised every year, most of them in Africa.
FGM is widespread in West Africa, where Burkina Faso has led the way in combatting the practice over the past 12 years with a considerable degree of success.
According to survey figures released in Ouagadougou last month, the percentage of women subjected to the operation has fallen to just one or two percent in some parts of the country from more than 50 percent when the campaign against FMG started in 1992.