In New York, the Beijing Plus Ten conference is underway. It’s a 10-year follow-up to the historic world conference on women held in China. Women leaders from the Muslim world and the Americas are exchanging views on the best ways to end violence against women.
One of the participants is Ayesha Imam of Nigeria. She’s chief of the Culture, Gender and Human Rights Branch of the UN Population Fund. From New York, she spoke to English to Africa’s Joe De Capua about the reasons for meeting.
Ms. Imam says, “It’s because worldwide one out of three women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way, usually by a man she knows, including her husband or another male relative. But still, despite that, violence against women is shrouded in silence and shame. And often people, often women, don’t report their sufferings. They’re undiagnosed and untreated. Worldwide, violence against women and girls causes more death and disability for women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war put together.”
The UN official says since it is a global problem, it is important to bring women together to discuss the problem and how it relates to their cultures. In Muslim societies, she says, there are the major issues of “honor” violence or “female genital cutting” also known as female genital mutilation. In the first case, a woman may be beaten or even killed by members of her own family if she is raped because the violence has dishonored the family.
“The woman embodies the honor of the family,” says Imam. She says such honor violence may even result if a woman simply talks to a person the family disapproves of. In some cultures, cutting off part of the female genitalia is a common practice and is attributed to Islam. Ms. Imam says one way to deal with the issue is to “focus not on trying to stigmatize cultures or values of cultures as wrong or evil or immoral, but focusing on practices which harm people in health terms, in dignity terms, in rights terms whilst validating the cultures themselves.”
She adds, “If in one particular society genital cutting or genital mutilation is supposed to be related to morale values and keeping women safe, the values of that are not a problem. But to point out that a particular practice of cutting off a woman’s or a girl’s genitalia has serious health, psychological, emotional consequences for her. And that there are other practices than can uphold the values without engaging in bodily cutting, in mutilation and in physical harm is the way that we go about it.
The UN Population Fund official says, “In terms of Muslim discourses, for example, there is a saying that Allah or God does not want anybody to be harmed. So, clearly, if a particular practice has harmful health consequences this is not something that should be validated in Muslim practices.”