Berhane Ras-Work, the president of the Inter-African Committee (IAC), has waged a 20-year war against harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), to which millions of African women are being subjected. Here, in an interview with IRIN, held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa on 6 February, she challenges governments and the African Union (AU) to play a more vigorous role in the fight against FGM and towards helping to eradicate it by 2010.
QUESTION: How serious is the problem of female genital mutilation in Africa?
ANSWER: This problem is very serious. We estimate that 130 million women that have been affected by this barbaric practice and every year two million girls are threatened by mutilation. So it is a very serious affair. We are talking about infibulation, we are talking about excision with all the cutting, the mutilation, the stitching that is involved. Also there is the threat of HIV transmission.
Q: How does it affect women?
A: In many ways. During delivery of a baby there is pain and suffering, bleeding during the excision, infection, tearing. Even the first night of marriage is not a pleasure for many African women because of the cutting and stitching. So you can imagine – it is a life-long [agony] of pain and suffering.
Q: If this is so harmful why do people do it?
A: This is a tradition. Tradition is something you live with without question for many years, for generations. It has been accepted as a norm, as a way of life, for a girl to be excised, infibulated, in order for her to get the security of marriage, to be marriageable. So it is a guarantee for millions of women, and they never questioned it. They found it, they accepted it and they went for it without questioning. So it has been a tradition, but now we realise the harm it causes to millions of women. We are educating, we are creating awareness, and so many people are now challenging the validity of this practice.
Q: Why don’t women refuse it?
A: Now they realise the problem and relate pain, infection and tearing during delivery to FGM, which they didn’t before. All of this was attributed to something superstitious, supernatural things and so on. Now when they realise what and how much [harm] this practice causes, they say we don’t want it. They often will tell you it is too late for me, but I don’t want it for my daughter.
Q: Do the rights and position of women in society exacerbate this problem?
A: Of course. The underlying factor is of course the economic vulnerability of women, the subordinate status attributed to women, ignorance about their bodies, the functions of their bodies, and ignorance of their rights. So they have accepted this. It is the subordination of women and their unequal power relations with men. That is the underlying factor. FGM is a manifestation of the unequal relationships whereby women have to sacrifice a part of themselves in order to be marriageable, in order to be accepted.
Q: And which countries are the worst offenders?
A: Well, the Horn of Africa is the hardest hit with infibulation, like Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and parts of Ethiopia. That is the worst form of FGM. But we are talking about 28 countries in Africa and different degrees and different varieties of FGM. So, all in all, 28 different African countries, with over 130 million women [having undergone FGM] and two million girls every year threatened. There are many offenders.
Q: Do you see this as a development problem?
A: Certainly. A woman who is not healthy cannot contribute to the development of her country. She cannot work, she cannot participate in any kind of programme, because she is paining, because she is suffering, because her health is not taken care of, and plus her status is not recognised as equal. She is not given land to till, she is not allowed to participate fully in business, she doesn’t have the equal rights to participate equally in policy-making, and so on and so forth because of her health status and because of what tradition has attributed to her as a role.
Q: You call for laws to be introduced to prevent this happening, but here in Ethiopia [although] they have laws, yet FGM still occurs?
A: Not a strong law. Law by itself is not enough. You have to have the mechanism for implementation. You have to have the commitment of the government to educate the public to say: Look, this law is not punitive, it is preventative, it is protective for your daughters. So in addition to the law, which shows the commitment of the government, there has to be further action in terms of implementing the law and making it good for the people. It is only 16 countries that have legislated against FGM in Africa. So there are many more who need to legislate and implement.
Q: And what sort of legislation are you looking for?
A: Very strong legislation that says no to practices such as FGM, early marriages, practices that ill-treat widowed women, and many, many others. In Ethiopia alone we have identified 105 harmful traditional practices to women, and all these have to be eradicated through legislation, education and change of attitude.
Q: And is the African Union playing a supporting role?
A: They are playing a role. So far, it is a positive attitude they are expressing, but it is not enough. We talk about the protocol adopted by the African Union on the rights of women, which is a good beginning. But that is not enough. There should be more government commitment. This protocol should be signed and ratified [before it then becomes law] and implemented.
There should be programmes to bring about gender justice, awareness on the side of men that women as partners can contribute to development, can contribute to Nepad [New Partnership for Africa’s Development] – the new initiative for the development of Africa. So there is a lot to be done on the part of the AU and the member states. But there is a sign of hope.
Q: How can you incorporate FGM prevention into Nepad?
A: I don’t think it is specifically mentioned there, but we are talking about gender equality, the education of girls, reproductive health of African women. We are talking about education and so on and so forth. So FGM and prevention of harmful traditional practices can be incorporated into all of these programmes that are designed to bring about the full participation of women in Africa’s development. This is what we are lobbying for.
Q: Why has it not been done before?
A: It is the same story. What happens is that women come last in the priorities and agendas of governments. Women do not voice their concerns. They are not vocal about their problems. They remain silent. They are apathetic about their situations, they say this is so, what can I do? Women do not challenge the government so they [governments] take it [the problem of women's rights] last... For them, it is other priorities. But now, gradually, because of the voices of the many women now being heard left and right, regionally and internationally, there is a sign of opening [up] on the part of governments to listen and to act... It is a good beginning.
Q: What needs to be done now at the end of this zero tolerance in the FGM conference?
A: First of all, we should look to the common agenda for action that was adopted last year. It details the very many actions that need to be taken by governments, by UN agencies, by NGOs, and others like education, training, working with the communities, religious leaders, as well as lobbying for legislation, implementation, working with the AU and the UN. The common agenda is one very important document that should be promoted and embraced. Then to take a commitment that 'in my own way I am going to do something about this practice, it is
inhuman, it is cruel and it is unnecessary'.
Q: Are you hopeful that the 2010 eradication of FGM target will be met?
A: Yes, if we join hands and continue with the commitments we are hearing now from the government officials, the AU, the Economic Commission for Africa, I am sure it is possible, and based on our own experience through the IAC. As an NGO with small means, we have shown how it is possible to bring about a positive change of attitude at all levels. So it is possible.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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