NOUAKCHOTT, Mohamed Abderrahmane (IPS) – A multi-pronged strategy to end female genital mutilation in Mauritania is making gradual progress, though campaigners acknowledge much remains to be done in a country where more than two-thirds of girls suffer excision. A 2007 Demographic Health Survey found that 71 percent of women and girls in Mauritania have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), carried out by traditional birth attendants on girls before they reach the age of five. The survey reported the reasons given in support of the practice were religion, aesthetics and the promotion of modesty. It also found that the practice was less common among better educated families.
Khatto Mint Jiddou, who heads the campaign against gender-based violence at Mauritania’s Ministry for Social Affairs, Childhood and the Family, told IPS that the initiative involves a wide range of people, including civil society activists, doctors and religious leaders. The national programme, supported by several development partners, includes lobbying for the adoption of a law criminalising excision, raising awareness of a fatwa (a religious notice) forbidding excision, and the setting up of regional offices to monitor the practice. In March, 35 excisors – including many from the central Tagant region, where an estimated 97 percent of girls suffer excision – publicly announced that they were voluntarily abandoning the procedure. Jiddou said the women had been convinced of the dangers of the practice by the explanations put forward by doctors and theologians.
Djeinaba Ba, a gynaecologist in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, told IPS that FGM causes pain and trauma, and often results in serious infections. Massive haemorrhaging, which can lead to death, also occurs frequently. Aziza Mint Meslem, a midwife and civil society activist working against FGM, said that girls who survive the harmful procedure only have more difficulties ahead. “Some infections create dysfunction in the external mucus membranes of the uterus, which prevents the passage of sperm to the uterus, thereby creating sterility,” she said. She added that the practice also provokes obstetric fistulas and haemorrhaging during childbirth. Religious leaders have also lent their voices to the campaign. Hademine Ould Saleck, the imam of the old mosque in Nouakchott, said that he and his colleagues issued a religious notice, or fatwa, forbidding FGM in 2010, based on the risks identified by doctors and taking into account the emphasis Islam places on the dignity of human beings. “We consider this practice, in its usual form, to be forbidden because of the damage it causes, and call on civil and criminal authorities to act against perpetrators,” he told IPS.
Saleck said that the fatwa issued by the Mauritanian religious community in 2011 received support from colleagues in eight West African countries: Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Chad. There are additional incentives for birth attendants to renounce FGM: although those who give up the practice do not receive any compensation, they will be prioritised in the allocation of loans for income- generating activities and given preferential access to literacy classes. But Meslem, who works with an NGO called the Mauritanian Association for the Health and Development of Women, says her experience in the field underlines the need for the adoption of laws specifically targeting FGM. She told IPS that twice in the past two years, she has come across cases of young girls who have died due to haemorrhaging after FGM. In each case, it was her NGO rather than the girls’ parents who alerted police; both times, the woman responsible was arrested, held for questioning for several days, but then released with no further action taken.
The midwife lamented the lack of legal sanctions against excisors in the Mauritanian penal code. “It’s a flagrant violation of the rights of girls, because international human rights law stipulates that every person has the right to the integrity of her body,” said Meslem. Gynaecologist Ba told IPS she has seen shifting attitudes recognising the harmful effects of FGM, early marriage and closely-spaced pregnancies. She observed, however, that the shift is noticeable among better-educated women living in cities and towns, and not among those who practice a nomadic lifestyle. Meslem too sees reasons for guarded optimism. “We are seeing a positive trend, even if this phenomenon, rooted in socio-cultural considerations, is far from being brought under control.”