Activists have welcomed a ban on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the new constitution of Somalia – a country where 96 percent of women undergo one of the more extreme forms of the practice – but warn that translating the law into action will require more than just a legal declaration.
“The fact that the new provisional constitution outlaws the circumcision of girls is a welcome development, but this will require education, awareness-raising and strong legal provisions. Without this, the provision will be little more than ink on a piece of paper,” says Fatima Jibrell, a women’s advocate.
The provisional constitution states, “Circumcision of girls is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited.”
In Somalia, the most common form of FGM/C is type III, known as infibulation, which, according to the World Health Organization, involves the “removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora) and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening.” Globally, an estimated 100-140 million girls (92 million in Africa) live with FGM/C. Another three million are at risk of undergoing the procedure annually.
Hawa Abdi, a 23-year-old mother of two, was circumcised when she was 10. Today, she lives in neighboring Kenya, having fled two years ago to escape the violence in Somalia. Recalling the pain she went through during the procedure, Hawa says the ban, if implemented, offers hope for future generations of girls and women.
“[Female] circumcision is painful and the problems it creates for you are there until you die. You are robbed of your womanhood… Now parents who do not want their daughters circumcised can say the law does not allow it,” she said.
Opposing the ban
Some, however, have issues with the new law.
Women in Somalia often cannot get married without undergoing the practice, and the beliefs that FGM/C is a religious requirement, makes women pure and reduces sexual libido remain widespread.
“Many men and some women will oppose it on the ground of culture, Islam or issues of chastity,” Jibrell said.
“We have had it [FGM/C] in our culture. The writers of the constitution know it, and they are pretending to hate it. We can’t abandon something that has helped our girls to stay pure,” Jirde, a Somali elder, told reporters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
“Our men will not have girls to marry because you can’t marry [an] uncircumcised [woman] if you are a true Somali man. It is these people who give us money who say you must ban circumcision and then we give money,” Jirde added.
Carrying out community empowerment programmes, raising awareness of the health effects of the practice and delinking it from Islam, experts say, must compliment the law, helping it avoid possible collision with deeply rooted cultural beliefs.
“A lot is required … [to] work with the religious leaders … [for] a consensus on the abandonment of all forms of FGM/C … empowerment programmes for the girls to be able ‘speak out’ of their circumcision status and to be happy of their status will be crucial since currently no woman or girl would want to be known as not circumcised since it’s unheard of,” says Sheema Sen Gupta, a senior child protection officer with UNICEF Somalia.
Sheema,says that without adequate community involvement, the new law risks driving the practice underground rather than eradicating it. “As we have learned from several other countries, community empowerment is very crucial to avoid the practice from going underground.”
Risk of severe bleeding, infection and infertility are some of the side effects of the procedure, as are obstetric complications including postpartum hemorrhage and infant mortality. Research suggests that girls who have undergone FGM/C are more prone to mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).