Monday, February 24, 2014

FGM and owning women

Despite international campaigns, the United Nations says millions of girls in Africa remain at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Activists say FGM violates a girl's human rights and puts her at risk for serious health complications, including problems during childbirth. In Liberia, there is no law against it and FGM is still common practice. Speaking out against female circumcision can be dangerous in Liberia. In 2012, an activist's home was burned down after she spoke on the topic before the United Nations in New York. A local journalist got death threats after she published an article on FGM. Vah Tamba, a government social worker at the Margibi County Gender office, frequently receives threats related to his work.

"Sometimes we are threatened not to visit a community. Sometimes they want to harm us. They even want to kill us. It is our work. We have to move forward. We will continue to campaign until there is a change in the practice,” said Tamba. However, he said that rather than banning FGM, the government is focusing on providing jobs skills training for women involved in the practice to give them another way to earn a living. The idea, he said, is to "distract them" from FGM. For the cutters, or "koko mekong", who can earn 2,500 Kenyan shillings (£18) for each girl, it is a livelihood. "The cutters ask me: 'If we leave doing this thing, what will we eat?'" Margaret says. "Tell the government to give us what to eat. If it's just workshops then it will be no use. The circumcisers will not leave their career simply because they're being told to leave it."

Nonetheless, the job of persuasion is slow and dangerous. Activists working on women's rights in Liberia said it is going to take time and dialogue to get these communities to change their way.  A clumsy colonial efforts to ban the practice in Kenya saw it become a cultural cornerstone of the Mau Mau uprising against British rule. The "cut" has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001. A second set of laws passed in 2011 made it illegal to promote or to facilitate what used to be known as female circumcision, and stiffened penalties.  Despite this, a public health survey in 2009 found that 27% of women had been subject to FGM. Among some ethnic groups – such as the Somalis (98%) and Masai (73%) – that figure is much higher.  But the ban has driven it underground.

Changing the law is easier than changing practice. Reformers are accused of criminalising traditional culture.

Underpinning the practice is a sharply divergent vision of the roles of sons and daughters. In Kenya, a dowry is paid by the groom's family. As a result, girls are seen as a valuable asset to their families, if they can be offered for marriage in the "right" condition.
"The daughters are seen as cattle to be sold," said Kipteroi, who added that a bride price would be typically counted in livestock, worth perhaps as much as 30 cows. "No one will even negotiate a bride price for uncut girls."

Uncut girls, sometimes referred to as "raw" as opposed to mutilated "ripe" women, can expect to be shunned by their neighbours. They are forced to walk for miles to fetch water so they don't "contaminate" pumps and wells; local midwives even refuse to deliver their "unclean" babies.

In Liberia, a girl who has not had her clitoris cut off would not be allowed to attend community meetings or participate in local decision-making. She would be seen as unclean, and could even face accusations of witchcraft later in life.

Reuben Orgut,  one of the elders in Sandai, is unapologetic about FGM and the economics behind it. "When I get this dowry it's a way to support the other siblings. It means that when my sons also marry I have something to give out." He says the girls who refuse to be cut and married off are "stealing" from their own families. "It is not fair since they are a source of wealth. Some who have not been circumcised leave the family without us getting the bride wealth."

When men and women cease to be a commodity, bought and sold, then these archaic  practices will disappear.

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