MAURITANIA: It Is Not Circumcision

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania/GENEVA, 20 July 2007 (LWI) - "I will never do it again! If I hear of someone doing it, I will report [them] to the police!"

Ms Aminata Louli sits with a group of women in a dusky house yard in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. The women around her respond to her remarks with gentle laughter. Reed mats are spread across the ground, and more women gather in the space, some carrying children. Others are more elderly. There are young girls too. Louli used to be a professional female circumciser.

The women have one commonly shared resolve: to erase the exercise of painful female circumcision in their country. They do not speak in a roundabout way about circumcision, but about female genital mutilation (FGM). They know what they are talking about. All of them have undergone FGM, the term used to describe the removal of all or just part of the external parts of the female genitalia.

"We call Aminata Louli a commissar," whispers one woman. "She is nowadays a wholehearted opponent of female genital mutilation."

Loul'‚s eyes twinkle mischievously. Even though the question is about such a painful and difficult subject, the women still preserve their sense of humor. "When I realized [the] awful things I had done to the girls, I stopped at once," she remarks seriously. "I even went to apologize to those who were there to receive an apology."

On their laps, the women have an informative brochure produced by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department for World Service (DWS) Mauritania program. The protest "No! to female genital mutilation" shouts from its cover in French and the local Hassaniya dialect.

Painful, Perilous

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), most of the girls and women who have undergone FGM live in 30 African countries, but some live in Asia. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, primarily among immigrants from Africa and southwestern Asia.

FGM is mainly perceived as a cultural practice, performed on adolescents and children; and in some countries, even on infants under one year-old. The practitioners are specialized women, generally traditional birth attendants or midwives, who have no medical training. In communities where it is carried out, it is a highly-valued service with financial rewards. A practitioner's social status and income can be directly linked with the operation‚s performance.

Several reasons are put forward for the practice of FGM, including the mistaken belief that it is a religious requirement; that it strengthens girls' sexual morale; and, provides better chances for initiation into womanhood including marriage.

Harmful Tradition

In many countries it is also believed that the Islamic faith requires FGM. Some traditional Mauritanian Muslim leaders want to change such belief and entirely erase the practice.

"Some misunderstand religion," says El Hassan Ould Moulaye Ely, secretary general of the Saudi Islamic Institute in Nouakchott. "That is why it is important that those who understand holy writings also explain things."

He emphasizes the need to distinguish between traditional beliefs and religion. "If a traditional habit is harmful to health, it needs to be [eliminated]. We can preserve good traditions but give up harmful ones."

The institute's traditional leaders also speak out through the informative brochure used by the LWF-supported women's group. Among other things, it explains that in Islamic Saudi Arabia, women are not circumcised.

Throughout Mauritania, women's groups warn about the dangers associated with FGM - dirty surgical instruments that cause infections; the possibility to transmit HIV through shared unclean instruments; and, that women who have undergone the practice have problems giving birth, and their ability to hold back urine is weakened.

Girls‚ Rights

There is a decree forbidding FGM in Mauritania. "[But] for many people it is something new that women, and even children, have rights. Nobody [should] be hurt," explains Ms Houl√ye Tall, the LWF country program coordinator for human rights and the promotion of peace. She observes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the country has signed, plays an important role.

The rights of young girls are often violated. Education is not always effective even among women, says Tall, who narrates one of many situations she encounters in her daily work: "I was told about a woman who had decided that her daughter would no be operated [circumcised]. As we drove in her car on the way back home one day, she explained her primary-school-age daughter came home with bloody clothes."

Tall continues: "The woman learned later that one of her aunties had taken the young girl to a circumciser without informing anybody. But the mother had only realized what had happened to her daughter when the young girl returned from riding her bicycle. Her clothes were bloody. The wound had opened."

The DWS Mauritania brochure depicts a young girl's death caused by bleeding after the removal of her genitalia.

The girl on the bicycle lived. (828 words)

** DWS work in Mauritania emphasizes the cross-cutting issues of human rights promotion, gender equality and HIV and AIDS. The LWF program is the primary international non-governmental organization involved with the government in developing human rights policies, in collaboration with UN agencies. Its work focuses on female genital mutilation, women‚s and children‚s rights, schooling and the rights of physically handicapped persons.

(Finnish journalist Paula Laajalahti wrote this feature for LWI during her visit to DWS Mauritania project work. She is a communications officer of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission -FELM.)

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(The LWF is a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, the LWF currently has 140 member churches in 78 countries all over the world, with a total membership of nearly 66.7 million. The LWF acts on behalf of its member churches in areas of common interest such as ecumenical and interfaith relations, theology, humanitarian assistance, human rights, communication, and the various aspects of mission and development work. Its secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland.)

[Lutheran World Information (LWI) is the LWF's information service. Unless specifically noted, material presented does not represent positions or opinions of the LWF or of its various units. Where the dateline of an article contains the notation (LWI), the material may be freely reproduced with acknowledgment.]


AUTHOR: Frank Imhoff

URL: Click here

DATE: 21/07/2007

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