DOUALA, CAMEROON —
For several decades voices of protest against female genital mutilation have increased in a campaign to denounce and end forever the common practice of cutting out the genital organs of young girls.
But the fact is that the age-old practice, enshrined in traditions across Asia, the Middle East - and particularly Africa – persists, and faces strong resistance by protectors of the custom.
There are significant factors that sustain and even spread the custom as Cameroonian health authorities seek innovative ways to end a practice they say is a barbaric custom and a major health risk for young girls.
Starting with clerics and local chiefs
Cameroon’s minister of women’s empowerment, Professor Marie-Therese Abena Ondoa, has embarked on a campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation across the Central African nation by 2015. Her ministry recently signed an accord with Muslim clerics and local traditional chiefs to help create awareness of the dangers of the practice.
“We cannot hope to eradicate female genital mutilation if we don’t work hand-in-hand with the traditional authorities,” said the minister. “This is why the memorandum of understanding we’ve signed is of great importance.
“Traditional authorities are very influential in the community and I’m optimistic that we will reach zero-tolerance with this approach.”
And that’s not all. Abena is currently lobbying Parliament to adopt specific laws punishing female genital mutilators. But despite the efforts, supported by scores of civil society organizations, female circumcision continues to persist.
A dispenser of herbs in a remote clinic
Cocks are crowing and I am standing at the entrance to a herbalist’s clinic in Yokadouma, a remote locality in southeastern Cameroon. Outside, there’s a short queue of people waiting to get traditional cures for assorted illnesses.
Their muffled chats are sporadically interrupted by the piercing screams of a young girl inside. The wailing six-year-old Mairamou Dogo is the daughter of Muslim parents. They’ve brought her here to have parts of her genitals removed.
If she survives the process, Mairamou will henceforth be counted among Cameroon’s the latest victims of female genital mutilation, a commonplace practice in this part of the Central African nation.
Her cries continue.
Despite my repeated requests, her mother and accompanying relatives all refuse to explain why they subject their six-year-old girl to the painful procedure.
They speak of other things.
Ministry studies indicate 20 percent of girls and women in Cameroon’s north, far north and southwest undergo genital mutilation. And emerging trends depict its increasing incidence in urban areas due to a swelling rural exodus.
One of 28 countries that practice FGM
However, Cameroon is just one of 28 African countries and others in Asia and the Middle East where girls and women undergo partial or total excision of their genital organs, including the clitoris and vagina lips.
Lisa Peterson, a former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Yaoundé, says Cameroon has been urging zero-tolerance of cuttings that are usually performed under conditions that risk the health of the girl or woman.
“It’s estimated that 100- to 140-million women around the world have undergone this procedure and three million girls are at risk every year,” says Peterson. “The practice is often performed by untrained practitioners employing no anesthesia and often using such instruments as broken glass, tin lids, scissors or unsterilized razor.”
Apart from being denied the pleasures of sex and ensuing traumas, female genital mutilation victims additionally suffer grave pain and bleeding. They also run elevated risks of multiform infections, infertility and childbirth complications.
Called a moral and civic evil
Senator Simon Achidi Achu is a one-time prime minister of Cameroon.
“That’s a moral evil,” Achu says. “It’s a civic evil against mankind and even against God. It’s an error we have to correct.”
Meanwhile, there is no medical facility providing repair surgery across all of Africa. Plans by, Clitoraid, an international nonprofit to set up the continent’s first-ever female genitalia damage-repair medical facility in Burkina Faso earlier this year failed. The organization has accused the Catholic Church for obstructing the initiative.
And so girls like Mairamou may well endure the physical, social and emotional scars for life.
Custodians of tradition in communities practicing FGM across Africa hold that uncircumcised girls are out-casts as they constitute a curse to their communities.
In predominantly Muslim northern Cameroon, guardians of traditions argue the cuttings are the best methods of raising their daughters because it dissuades them from indulging in sex and so keeps them pure until marriage.
Does it guarantee marriage fidelity?
Mayramou Lukman, a practicing Muslim from northern Cameroon, says women who undergo the practice tend to remain faithful to their husbands because they lose the desire to have sex and are not attracted to men. She says while such imposed fidelity may be a good thing for concerned couples, some circumcised women run the risk of leading adulterous lives in search of sexual satisfaction.
Elsewhere, usually untrained circumcisers earning between $15 to $30 dollars per session are reluctant to leave the practice.
Offer practitioners a better alternative
Lucas Boti, a circumciser in the country’s southwest, says until the government and anti-female genital mutilation campaigners provide incentives and subventions for them to start up different income-generating ventures, the practice will persist.
And though campaigners are afield sensitizing target populations, observers argue the challenge remains huge.
Nicole Okalia Bilai, a senator and women’s rights campaigner, says, “You know it’s a cultural issue and culture cannot be erased just like that. But if it’s possible that through parliament we can reduce or eliminate it, it will be a very good thing for the woman in Cameroon.”
When the legislative body meets for its second annual session this month, lawmakers may make progress adopting and enacting laws that specifically discourage female genital mutilation across the country.