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Thursday, April 2, 1998 Published at 21:32 GMT 22:32 UK

World: Africa

First Lady promotes fight against female circumcision
image: [ 'More than 135 million women and girls have experienced some degree of genital mutilation' ]
'More than 135 million women and girls have experienced some degree of genital mutilation'

President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary - on the final day of their African tour - met human rights campaigners in Senegal and discussed a range of issues including the dangers of female circumcision.

[ image: Hillary Clinton: met activists]
Hillary Clinton: met activists
Mrs Clinton took part in discussions with women activists opposed to the widespread traditional practice of excision - also known in the West as "female genital mutilation" or "female castration".

The practice involves the removal of external genitalia - the clitoris and labia minora.

A more extreme form of female genital mutilation is infibulation: the female has the majority of her genitalia excised leaving the labia majora to be sewn together covering the urethra and the vagina. A small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood to pass.

Up until the last century genital surgery was prevalent in the United Kingdom and America.

In America the surgery was used to control promiscuity. In England the removal of the clitoris was thought to be a cure for psychological problems.

[ image: FGM is seen as a rite of passage from girl to womanhood]
FGM is seen as a rite of passage from girl to womanhood
In Africa, the reasons given for the practice are cultural rather than medical, says Rahmat Mohammed, Project Manager for the London based organisation, Forward, which works in North and West Africa to combat this practice.

"Especially among the 'secret' Bundo female societies in Sierra Leone, the procedure is seen as a rite of passage from girl to womanhood," she says.

In an average Bundo home, the common view held is that the woman needs a husband to survive. Therefore the parents' main concern is making their daughter "worthy" of marriage.

Reasons for the practice vary from religious beliefs to ensuring a girl's virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards.

The figures

According to Amnesty International estimates:

  • More than 135 million women and girls have experienced some degree of genital mutilation

  • Two million girls a year are at risk of mutilation - about 6,000 a day

  • The practice is predominant in Africa, although it occurs in parts of Asia, the Pacific, North and Latin America and Europe

    The controversy

    Rahmat Mohammad quotes Alice Walker: "Female genital mutilation is torture, not a culture."

    She believes that FGM has entered the human rights arena: "It is an oppression of the girl-child, eroding all the dignity the infant has."

    One girl's testimony :'It was very painful' (0'19')
    International condemnation of the practice has heightened. Amnesty believes that female genital mutilation inflicts severe pain and suffering. Evidence suggests that the procedure is usually performed without anaesthesia using implements such as unsanitised knives, sharp stones, broken glass and scissors.

    The physical effects of FGM are usually shock, haemorrhaging, urinary and menstrual retention, pain and even death. The psychological effects are immeasurable.

    FGM was slow to reach the international human rights agenda because violence against females in the home or community was considered a private issue and therefore not a credible human rights concern.

    There were also fears that intervention by western countries in the name of human rights would be perceived as an attack on cultural traditions.

    [ image: Fatima taking a stance against the practice]
    Fatima taking a stance against the practice
    Education and attitudes are beginning to change as in the case of Fatima Gearma, a Somali woman. More than 20 years ago she refused to circumcise her daughters, risking the disapproval of both her family and her community.

    "Some people think I did wrong for my daughters in not circumcising them. I thought it was an advantage for them. As I see it these are my children and I do what is best for them".

    One girl's testimony :'This cycle of tradition should be broken' (0'25')
    Rahmat Mohammed believes the West "should assist these children and mothers and give them voices". She detests culture being used as an excuse for complacency.

    In Mali, the Asompt organisation - the majority of which are women - is opposed to "harmful traditional practices". It believes this practice will end when African women want it to.

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