Community empowerment is the key to ending the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting,in Somalia, a senior official of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Thursday.
"Somalia has one of the highest prevalence rates of FGM in the world, with more than 98 percent of Somali girls between the ages of seven to 12 being cut," Christian Balslev-Olesen, head of UNICEF Somalia said at the launch of the organisation's global report, "Changing A Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting".
"But this report demonstrates that with a better understanding of why FGM persists, we can work with communities to end this practice. And we believe this can be achieved within one generation," Balslev-Olesen added.
FGM is a harmful ritual, the severity of which varies across the cultures in which it is practised. It includes the total removal of the clitoris and can also involve the cutting or removal of the labia minora and the inner surface of the labia majora as well.
Cutting is most often performed by a traditional practitioner who has no formal medical training. It is generally done with crude instruments and without the benefit of anaesthesia.
The custom poses several health risks to girls, ranging from physical pain and shock to haemorrhaging, systemic infections and even death. It is psychologically damaging as well.
Endorsing the theme of the report, Abdilaziz Sheikh Yusuf, health minister with the Transitional Federal Government, said, "I call on all Somalis to end this practice because of the problems it brings especially for women. All Somalis must come to know that it is a bad practice."
FGM is a deeply entrenched social convention that is also a prerequisite for marriage. According to the report, it is not enough for individual families to abandon the custom. Such gestures would merely make it difficult for individual daughters to marry. To bring about lasting cultural change, entire communities must collectively reject the practice. Community abandonment of the custom would reduce the stigma and social isolation of uncut girls and their families.
The report noted that countries such as Senegal and Guinea succeeded in ending the practice through community empowerment, legislative and policy measures, public discussion, culturally sensitive messages, and the support of religious and other leaders.
Contrary to widely held opinion, the practice of FGM is not prescribed by religion.
"Neither the Koran nor the Xadith endorse FGM. Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia do not practice FGM. I have four girls and I have not cut any of them," Somali religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Hasan Qudubi commented from Mogadishu.
"I have met mothers who do not want to cut their daughters, but social convention demands that they do so. Young men tell me that they will not marry a girl who has been cut, but social pressure will probably determine otherwise," Balslev-Olesen observed.
"It is within this context that UNICEF will work with communities throughout the country to guide them in a process of reflection, analysis and public discussion on the issue of FGM to bring about collective change. We will also facilitate dialogue between Islamic scholars and Somali religious leaders to reach consensus on this issue," he added.
Balslev-Olesen acknowledged that lasting social change was complex and would take time. The success of community empowerment initiatives in countries like Senegal, however, demonstrated that this approach could accelerate abandonment of the practice, he said.