West Africa: 'Mauritanian Muslim imams initiate rare ban on female circumcision'


DAKAR - Human rights campaigners who have been struggling for years to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) in West Africa got a boost this week as news emerged that a group of Muslim clerics and scholars in Mauritania had declared a fatwa, or religious decree, against the practice.

The centuries-old practice involves removing part or all of a girl's clitoris and labia, and sometimes narrowing the vaginal opening. About 72 percent of the women in Mauritania have undergone FGM which health workers say often causes severe bleeding, problems urinating and potential complications during childbirth.

"Are there texts in the Koran that clearly require that thing? They do not exist," the secretary general of the Forum of Islamic Thought in Mauritania, Cheikh Ould Zein, told Reuters.

"On the contrary, Islam is clearly against any action that has negative effects on health. Now that doctors in Mauritania unanimously say that this practice threatens health, it is therefore clear that Islam is against it," he added.

In many parts of West Africa, FGM has been presented as a religious obligation for practising Muslim women, leading most to believe that if they are not circumcised they are unclean and their prayers will not be heard.

Which makes the decision by 34 imams and scholars -- supported by the government of Mauritania and UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency -- all the more unusual.

"The fact that the religious leaders in Mauritania are standing up and doing this is quite amazing. It shows how concerned Islam and the religion of Islam is about the health of women," said Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, a Senegal-based organisation that has been working with 30 communities in Mauritania on FGM and rights issues.


UNICEF estimates that 3 million girls and women are cut each year across communities in 28 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East.

So, what is the likelihood of seeing similar bans on female circumcision in other countries?

Well, it's hard to say.

A fatwa in itself is generally binding only to those who follow a particular imam, so communities could be subject to contradictory decrees.

Moreover, not all the communities in the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa where the practice continues are Muslim -- reflecting the fact that, as a longstanding cultural practice,

FGM may be hard to end especially when campaigners use judgmental approaches.

"In the past, people have gone into communities and simply told them to stop this practice because it is bad and they display pictures of naked women and their reproductive organs in communities where this is shocking," Melching said.

Many organisations including Tostan and Save the Children believe this approach failed to stop the practice because it ignored the cultural context in which the targeted communities were living.

"I once asked a community: 'do you have the right to cut somebody’s hand?' They said no. 'Do you have the right to cut somebody's head or foot?' They said no. So why do you cut somebody's sexual organ?" said Ame Atsu David, a former regional programme coordinator for HIV and harmful traditional practices of Save the Children (Sweden) in West Africa.

"This got them thinking," she told AlertNet.

Many campaigners back an approach which involves human rights, education, community development, health care and leaves the decision to the communities themselves.

A Save the Children-backed campaign run by the Mali Centre Djoliba based on this approach has seen 40 villages abandon female circumcision and set up community groups to oversee the implementation of the decision in a country where over 80 percent of the women have experienced FGM.

In Senegal, 4,121 villages have abandoned FGM since 1997 with the support of Tostan whose work has been praised by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and has also contributed to a law against FGM which was passed in the country in 1999.

"But a law is not what will change a social norm. For it to be sustainable it has to come from the people, a decision made by the people, because they really believe in it," Melching said.

"The key is empowering people to make their own decisions but with good information," she told AlertNet.