Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Female Genital Mutilation- Where are our men?

As we continue campaigning against the horrific practice of female genital mutilation, most known activists are women. Well, that does not sound right! Of course men are involved in this campaign. Some of the cited reasons why this practice continues include enhancing male sexual pleasure (???), controlling women, stopping women from enjoying sex etc. It s a familiar tale. It has to be remembered however that when female genital mutilation takes place whether its (clitoridectomy, excision or infibulations), men are usually not present. In the case of Type 1V (pulling or cauterization etc), men are always to be kept in the dark. This is seen as purely a women business. We know that both in Africa and Europe, men are as disgusted as women by this practice.

Here is my story:

I had just got home from work when my phone rang. It was a frantic father who wanted my help. The conversation between us went as follows,

‘Abbie, please help me! I do not want my daughter to be cut. This is a useless, unnecessary and painful practice that I don’t wish on any child’. The father was concerned that her wife was likely to have their daughter cut. At the time when I received the call, the wife had disappeared with the kids, a boy and a girl. The couple both came from a country where female genital mutilation is highly prevalent. While the husband embraced change, the wife who had been cut twenty years before believed the young girl should have to go through the same procedure which resulted in their constant arguing.

Action had to be taken.

I won’t go into detail except to say that there are fathers and brothers who are really against female genital mutilation.

Working together is key!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Working with Communities to end Female Genital Mutilation

Back to Basics

The history of FGM is not well known, but the practice dated back at least 2000 years. It is known when or where the tradition of FGM originated from. Some believe it was practised in ancient Egypt as a sign of distinction amongst the aristocracy. Some believe it started during the slave trade when black women entered ancient Arab societies. Some believe the practice developed independently among ethnic groups in Sub Saharan Africa as part of entry into womanhood.

The Romans performed a technique involving slipping of rings through the labia majora of female slaves to prevent them from becoming pregnant.  The Scoptsi sect in Russia performed FGM to ensure virginity. Historically FGM was practised by UK and US gynaecologist to cure women of so called ‘female weaknesses’.

In some parts of Africa it is valued as a rite of passage to womanhood (Kenya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Ghana and some parts of Nigeria).

Other countries see this practice as a means of preserving a girl’s virginity (Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Ethiopia).  In Sierra Leone and Senegal for example, female genital mutilation provides a social status and therefore a critical component of female identity.

Alternatives to FGM

How then can the above be done without cutting?

  • In the Gambia (Tolston – Wolof meaning breakthrough) involves an 18 months community education programme that addresses hygiene, women health, human rights and problem solving. Once again this involves whole communities.
  • It is important to tailor interventions very specifically to the communities in which FGM is practised. Because it is an ancient and valued custom, practices are often very specific to communities or ethnic groups.
  • Older women should always be included in discussing alternative rites of passage to womanhood as they uphold old customs.
  • Cutting girls is illegal in most African countries but this practice still takes place in the 21st Century. Any significant change to attitudes works well if developed in partnership with the members of FGM practising communities and not be perceived as a threat to a people’s culture.
  • Find out what works well with specific communities rather than give orders.


Saturday, 21 March 2015

Obstetric fistula and Female Genital Mutilation

What is obstetric fistula?

An obstetric fistula is a hole that develops either between the rectum and the vagina (rectovaginal fistula), or between the bladder and the vagina (vesicovaginal fistula) and is caused by prolonged, obstructed labour during which the mother does not receive adequate treatment or care.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 2 million African women suffer from this condition, with 50 000 to 100 000 new cases developing every year.

The physical problems associated with this condition is a constant leakage of urine or faeces, or both, condemning the women to a lifetime of incontinence. The constant urinary incontinence often leads to skin infections, kidney disorders and even death if left untreated.

The sufferers are often ostracised by their families and communities because they smell and are constantly soaked in urine and/or faeces.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, in various Sub-Saharan countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zambia, obstetric fistula is not considered a medical condition but rather a “punishment” for women being disloyal to their families, or as a divine punishment for carrying a venereal disease. 

These perceptions, along with the physical symptoms, mean many of the women live in isolation, poverty and shame.

The United Nations Population Fund says obstetric fistula is preventable and can be avoided by delaying the age of first pregnancy (by, for instance, ending the practice of child marriage); family planning to space births and providing emergency obstetric care to pregnant mothers.


Some victims of FGM also end up developing this condition when they get married early.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The anti-FGM Campaign 2015

I have watched and listened with interest to the FGM campaign around the UK and the world. For me as a woman and a campaigner, it is wonderful that so many people are showing their concern. My concern though, is that we seem stuck at the same stage in our fight against this crime. It s important that those of us who care so passionately about this issue should understand the people we are trying to help. A friend made this very point recently, at a meeting at which we both spoke. If somebody of ,say, African or Middle Eastern origin, brought up in a European nation, would  be seen as an outsider when trying to gain the trust of these communities, imagine the difficulty faced by an indigenous European in the same situation.

We cannot take a one size fits all approach when there are so many different reasons why the practice continues;

·         Custom and tradition

·         Mistaken belief it is a religious requirement

·         Preservation of virginity/chastity

·         Social acceptance, especially for marriage

·         Hygiene and cleanliness

·         Increasing sexual pleasure for the male

·         Family honour

·         Enhancing fertility

·         A sense of belonging or the fear of social exclusion

·         Many women believe that FGM is necessary to ensure acceptance by their communities

It is often suggested that the practise exists in order to enhance male sexual pleasure,(although quite HOW, has never been explained by any man I know). Obviously thousands of years of male domination all over the world, make this seem to be an entirely logical premise. I don’t doubt that this is the case in some cultures but not all. In some cultures FMG is about female  empowerment,(almost like a rite of passage), and men have nothing to do with what’s going on.

In my opinion, all of those involved whether the UN or anti FGM charities, need to work closely with the communities they are trying to help, even empower women from these communities and give them the leading role. This is likely to give people time to think about the alternatives to initiation ceremonies that are part of some of these communities which might not involve cutting.

We must all understand that the surest way to alienate people is to patronise them. Work with the communities involved and let them take the lead, that’s the only way.