Ivory Coast: The kindest cut of all - severing a harmful tradition

Terraviva Africa
Thirty practitioners of female circumcision in Abidjan have publicly laid aside their blades, knives and scissors. This is the result of an ongoing campaign led by the National Organisation for the Child, the Woman and the Family.
The decision by the 30 to renounce their trade during a ceremony in Abidjan earlier this month marked the first instance in which ONEF had managed to convince some of the 75 identified circumcisors working in Abidjan to quit the profession. They had been circumcising girls and women despite the fact that circumcision was banned by a 1998 law.
"This has been a long haul, starting in 1995. Thanks to funding received in 2004, we have continued awareness raising," ONEF President Rachel Gogoua told IPS, emotional in the face of her organisation's success after so many years of fighting to end circumcisions.

Female circumcision (also referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM) is practiced in several regions of the country, effectively divided into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.

A study by ONEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that circumcision is on the increase in western Ivory Coast. Seventy percent of girls and women in this region had undergone FGM in 1995, a figure that has now increased to 80 percent.

Although it was once restricted to villages and remote hamlets, FGM has since developed into an urban phenomenon as well; men have become involved in the practice, and different excision techniques have evolved.

"Today, excisionists have mobile phones...You can contact them to arrange for a home visit," explains Gogoua, who believes circumcision needs to be considered a "violation of women's right to health".

Female circumcision involves the partial or complete removal of female genitalia. The most severe form of FGM -- infibulation -- results in part or all of the clitoris being cut away, as well as the folds of skin around the openings of the urethra and vagina. The resulting wounds are then stitched up, with only a small opening left to allow for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.

Many claim that excision lessens the risk of infidelity amongst women, on the grounds that it reduces their desire for sex. However, certain communities also consider FGM an initiation into adulthood or a hygienic measure -- while some Muslims believe it is a religious requirement. For her part, Gogoua considers this a false belief, one she is working to overcome.

UNICEF says FGM in Ivory Coast is most often carried out on teenagers before they get married -- although girls as young as five may also undergo the procedure. The agency also estimates that 13,000 new circumcisions are carried out annually. According to Geneviève Saki-Nékouressi of the WHO's Abidjan office, 130 million girls and women in Africa have undergone some form of genital mutilation.

Circumcision may be carried out with crude and unsterilised implements such as tin lids, putting girls at risk of contracting HIV. FGM can lead to difficulties in sexual intercourse and birth, and also cause girls to develop infections and other complications.

"Complications, pain, shock, acute haemorrhaging, urinary retention, dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation), sexual dysfunction, are the conditions that patients risk developing," Saki-Nékouressi told IPS.

The procedure may even result in death. Gogoua cites, for example, cases in the villages of Zralio and Koyinfla in the centre-west of the Ivory Coast, near the buffer zone which separates government and rebel forces.

In these two villages, where 10 practitioners have been identified, a girl of eight died as a result of the bleeding caused by FGM, she says. In another instance, a 25-year-old woman who was pregnant lost her life after undergoing circumcision, which custom dictates should be done before women give birth.

The 30 circumcisors who abandoned their profession say they realise they have done wrong, to those around them as well as themselves.

"Circumcision brought us nothing," noted one of the oldest, aged about 80. "We underwent this in the name of tradition (but) today, men are leaving their wives (who are circumcised) for young girls (who are not)."

ONEF says it has made funds available so that loans can be extended to the former circumcisors, enabling them to embark on other revenue-generating activities. Each has received about 130 dollars, under flexible terms of repayment.

By Fulgence Zamblé and originally published on 30 November 2005