Burkina Faso: Dial SOS circumcision and stop girls being cut

Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls
Suspect one of your neighbours is about to put her daughter's genitals under the knife? Call 'SOS Circumcision' and report the impending crime.
That's the hope of a national telephone hotline in Burkina Faso, where the government has been waging a decade-long war against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Burkina Faso is one of only 16 African states to have outlawed the practice.

Legislation passed in 1996 means anyone removing a girl's clitoris risks a fine of up to 900,000 CFA (US $1,800) and a prison term of up to three years, which can rise to 10 years if the victim dies as a result of the procedure.

Deeply ingrained social customs in remote, conservative villages are difficult to change, but the campaign against female circumcision in Burkina Faso has been relatively successful.

Government statistics show that before the law against FGM was passed, around two-thirds of girls in this poor, landlocked country were being circumcised, but this had fallen to between 35 percent and 40 percent by the beginning of 2005.

SOS Circumcision was set up in tandem with the legislation, to provide Burkina Faso's 12 million inhabitants with a fast and anonymous way of reporting past and future violations.

Azeta Ouedraogo, 31, is one of three women manning the phones in the capital, Ouagadougou.

"Last year we had this girl in tears on the phone, saying her little sister was about to be cut. She was really panicky, pleading with us to act quickly. She herself had suffered and she wanted to spare her sister the same fate," the hotline operator explained to IRIN.

"We got the local police on the case, and they managed to get to the house in time to stop the circumcision and save the little girl."

The National Committee for the Fight against Excision (CNLPE), which runs the hotline, says the boom-time for circumcision is from June to August, when girls are on school holidays.

Overall the CNLPE estimates it gets about 150 calls a year. Campaigners hope that when the hotline becomes a free-phone number in the next few months, it will prove to be an even more powerful weapon in the fight against circumcision.

Paying 75 CFA (15 US cents) a minute to report a girl being mutilated might seem a small price to pay in comparison to the deed being reported, but the United Nations ranks Burkina Faso as the third poorest country in the world and people do not have much cash to splash around.

Once the SOS call has been logged, police are normally dispatched to the area. When they arrive in time to prevent the crime, the parents, relatives and would-be circumciser are educated about the dangers of cutting out a girl's clitoris.

The risks include haemorrhaging to death on the table, suffering stunted growth and complications while giving birth later on.

In the dock

If the crime has already been committed, the perpetrators must face justice.

Antoine Sanou of the CNLPE says 88 cases of genital mutilation have been brought before Burkinabe courts since the law was introduced. On average each case involved five defendants, so more than 400 people have been punished.

But the law is not enough to deter everyone. Adama Barry, a wizened grandmother who says she is 55 but looks much older, has been arrested and jailed five times in seven years for genital mutilation.

Barry is serving a three-year sentence after her most recent arrest in August 2004. An anonymous caller to the hotline tipped off authorities that she was part of a group who had circumcised 16 girls between two and seven years old.

"The last time, when the parents came to ask me, I refused and told them it was against the law, but they kept coming back - three times they hammered on my door and insisted. So I ended up doing it and I was arrested straight away," she told IRIN in Ouagadougou's Maco prison. "Satan was stronger than me."

Of the 15 people in the women's unit, four are serving time for genital mutilation. Prison warders say during the excision season the female prisoner population usually doubles.

While many people are still carrying out genital mutilation, campaigners say they are encouraged by the fact that there is now a reflex to report the action as a crime.

Information drives and outreach programmes at national, regional and even individual level have had an impact - genital mutilation is no longer a taboo subject for discussion.

One campaigner recalls how, on a visit to a school on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the girls all knew the SOS Circumcision number by heart.

Even some of the men driving the city's green taxis are keen to share the story of their own conversion to the fight.

"My own wife had problems during labour because of a botched circumcision," said 32-year-old Armand Tiundrebego. "I had never been against the practice, but that day something changed."

Like many Burkinabe his age, Tiundrebego grew up thinking circumcision was a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood, and a way of preventing girls "spending their lives running after boys".

"But I'll tell my son that women don't have to be circumcised - that era is over," he said.

Still work to be done

Despite public education campaigns and strict application of the law, campaigners still have their concerns.

Jacqueline Magmini of Amnesty International notes that increased public awareness may have had the adverse effect of pushing the practice underground.

"Before, there used to be initiation ceremonies and days set aside for the circumcision. Now people hide away at night and circumcise girls in secret," she said. "We shouldn't be too optimistic - this will be a long battle."

CNLPE officials have admitted they are worried about people using Muslim naming ceremonies, where the baby usually cries anyway, as a cloak for genital mutilation.

In a joint survey with the World Health Organisation in 2004, the national committee found that 70 percent of circumcisions were carried out on girls under the age of seven because it was harder for authorities to detect.

In some regions of Burkina Faso, genital mutilation remains well above the national average. "We should not be complacent - there are still pockets of resistance," said Hortense Palm, the head of CNLPE, highlighting the border areas with Mali as trouble spots.

"You often have families spread across the border and living on both sides and . Mali is not where we are in the fight against circumcision," she explained.

Although hurdles remain, the government is optimistic. "We have been astonished by the progress we've made in the last few years - but yes, circumcision does still go on today," Mariam Lamizana, the Minister for Social Action, told IRIN.

"Changing people's behaviour does take time - it's about breaking the mental cycle - but we are aiming for zero tolerance. We want to wipe out the practice by 2010."