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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
US rethinks genital mutilation threat
Somali refugees in Kenyan camp
Many parents have stopped performing the ritual

The American authorities appear to be backing away from a threat not to allow into the United States Somali refugees who have genitally mutilated their daughters.

A group of about 12,000 Somali Bantus are currently waiting in a refugee camp in northern Kenya and have been given the right to emigrate en masse to the US.

But earlier this week the American embassy in Nairobi confirmed that some of those refugees had been rushing to circumcise their young daughters, having learned that the practice is illegal in the US.

An embassy spokesman said those involved would be investigated and the families probably barred from emigrating.

But now it seems doubts are surfacing.

Rite of passage

The American State Department is trying to tread carefully over what is becoming a very emotive issue.

It has put out a brief statement saying that it condemns the "abhorrent" practice of female genital mutilation and that it is seriously considering the next step.

Mother and child
Somali mothers traditionally circumcise daughters
Privately, aid workers have been critical of the American threat, saying it is "unworkable" and pointing out that the rush to circumcise has more or less stopped anyway following a series of recent publicity campaigns.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has gone further.

A spokesman, Emmanuel Nyabei, said there was nothing unique about what the Bantu Somalis were doing to their daughters.

The same thing has happened in the past, he said, with other groups waiting to emigrate.

The circumcisions, carried out without anaesthetic, are illegal in Kenya and the United States.

But the practice, an ancient rite of passage, is widespread in Somalia.

The 12,000 Bantus are members of an ethnic minority, the descendants of slaves who are persecuted in their country.

The first families are due to fly out to the US within a few months.

See also:

23 Jun 02 | Health
03 Mar 02 | Europe
18 Feb 01 | Health
29 Dec 97 | Briefings
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