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Women

Fighting female genital mutilation in Africa

Tuesday (06.02.2013) is the International Day of Zero Tolerance on Female Genital Mutilation. Every eleven seconds, a girl is subjected to the brutal practice. But Togo has outlawed the practice.

Some two million girls around the world every year become victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). It is an extremely painful experience. Knives are used to remove their external sexual organs, either partially or completely. This frequently leads to painful inflammation - some girls bleed to death. Those who survive suffer pain for the rest of their lives, both physical and mental.

The international community has been struggling to curb down the practice since 1997. But the UN General Assembly didn't accept a resolution on the elimination of FGM until December 2012.

The battle to end this brutal tradition, which is widespread in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, is long and complicated. NGOs estimate that between 130 and 150 million of the world's female population have been subjected to FGM. Exact figures are hard to come by as it remains a taboo subject in many countries.

But now the opponents of this tradition are celebrating a major success. Togo has officially ended the practice.

A nine-year old African girl lies on a blanket, her legs tied together to aid post-mutilation healing This young girl waits for the physical wounds to heal

This is the culmination of years of work by Togolese activists and the German NGO (I)ntact. The organization was founded in 1996 by Christa Müller, the wife of the then premier of the German state of Saarland.  Since 2006 it has received support from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Contact is the key

Eight years ago, the NGO (I)ntact began its work in Togo. Shortly afterwards, the anti-FGM activists were able to register progress in neighbouring Benin when a ceremony was held to mark the end of female genital mutilation there. Today, the number of girls subjected to FGM in Benin is close to zero, according to figures from the Demographic and Health Survey.

In Togo, the situation was as difficult as it once was in Benin. According to a study conducted in the 1990s, the rate of female genital mutilation among certain ethnic groups was as high as 90 percent. But the human rights activists succeeded in persuading people to abandon the practice. "The real success lay in the fact that we included FGM's main participants, the female circumcisers and traditionalists, in the project," (I)ntact's deputy chairman Detmer Hönle told DW.

The term "traditionalists" applies above all to the village elders. They have the greatest influence on their communities and lay down what is right and what is wrong.  It was not easy for the NGO activists to get close to them. First they had to explain who they were and what they wanted. That was the task of Fati Gnon, a Togolese woman responsible for coordinating the work of local NGOs which work together with (I)ntact.

 "We established contact by going from house to house. That way we could increase awareness of the topic and build up an atmosphere of trust," Gnon said.

Jawahir Cumar Photo: Priya Palsule 2009 Jawahir Cumar offers counselling to FGM victims in Germany

"Once we had won over the women who did the cutting, they helped us convince the masses."

Fourteen years ago Togo passed a law criminalizing FGM but it had little effect. In fact, it brought about just one conviction.  "In Africa, tradition is an unwritten law that is older than the laws passed by today's governments," said (I)ntact's Detmer Hönle. That is why it was so important to get the village elders and circumcisers on board. Former mutilators receive a small loan from the organization to help them find new sources of income. In this way, they retain the social status which they formerly enjoyed as a result of their traditional occupation. According to a survey carried out in Togo by (I)ntact, FGM is no longer regarded as a social norm, although it cannot be ruled out that individual cases still occur.

Lifelong pain

Worldwide, the battle against FGM is far from over. It is also being fought by Jawahir Cumar from her new home in Germany.  She became a victim of FGM at the age of five in her homeland, Somalia.  Today, in the German city of Düsseldorf, she counsels women who have suffered a similar fate. "These women suffer pain during sexual intercourse, while urinating, during menstruation; they endure pain every single day."

Jawahir Cumar's organization is called "Stop Mutilation" and offers women victims a gynaecological examination free of charge. Cumar also works to increase public awareness of the negative effects of FGM. In 2011 she was awarded Germany's highest honour, the Federal Order of Merit. Every year some two million women and girls still become victims of this brutal tradition. As long as this is so, there is a need for organizations such as "Stop Mutilation" and (I)ntact to continue their work.

DW.DE