Date: Wed, 24 Sep 97 10:57:03 CDT
From: rich@pencil.CC.WAYNE.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Revlon Fashion Model Speaks Out on Female Genital Mutilation
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Copyright 1997 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
New UNFPA Envoy Aims to End Female Genital Mutilation
By Farhan Haq, IPS, 18 September 1997
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 18 (IPS) - When Waris Dirie was four-years-old, her parents came to her room one night and told the frightened girl, "You have bad things between your legs, and they have to be removed."
Now that she is an adult, Dirie, an internationally-known model, has decided to take a stand against the terrifying practise she encountered that night: the surgical removal of her clitoris, often euphemistically referred to as 'female circumcision.' In her nomadic Somali community, however, Dirie remembers it only as 'that horror.'
As a little girl she was blindfolded and held down by her mother, with only a cloth to bite on to relieve her pain while her clitoris was cut out with a dirty razor. The same procedure, Dirie says, killed her sister - along with many other girls in Somalia who were cut in the wrong vein and bled to death, or died of infection.
On Thursday, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) named Dirie, a model for Revlon and other products, as its special ambassador on female genital mutilation.
In that role she will travel to many of the 28 countries, mainly in Africa, where the practise still exists, and will push for education and programmes that can help end female genital mutilation entirely. "I am going to do everything I can to stop this," Dirie says.
The scale of the task, however, is immense. UNFPA estimates that some 130 million women worldwide have suffered genital mutilation, with an additional two million girls having to face the practise every year.
"Female genital mutilation is a painful and unnecessary procedure with lifelong consequences for those who undergo it," says Dr Nafis Sadik, UNFPA executive director. "It exposes young girls to infection; it can cause serious injury or even death; it can damage psychological, social and sexual well-being."
Yet at the same time, it is a practise which exists in silence. In traditional Somali society women are discouraged from even discussing circumcision, or sexuality in general. "Nobody talks about it, it just happens - but it happens to all women," Dirie explains.
Until she fled from home to avoid an arranged marriage at the age of 13, she says, she did not even know that there existed places in the world where female genital mutilation did not occur.
Sadik hopes that Dirie's appointment will encourage the discussion of genital mutilation, particularly at the local level in the traditional societies where the practise remains in place.
"Laws will not really make the difference," she says, noting the persistence of genital mutilation in countries, like Egypt, which have formally banned the practise. "You really have to change the social norm."
Changing traditions will be hard. Dirie says that in Somalia, many mothers would voluntarily circumcise their daughters - and many girls would accept - to avoid being regarded as 'unmarriageable', or cast out of society. For men, the issue is one of ownership: one man explained to her that he would no sooner marry an uncircumcised woman than he would leave the doors of his house open.
"Tradition is man-made, unfortunately," Dirie argues. In some areas, Muslims and Christians also condone the practise - although, Dirie argues, "It has nothing to do with religion, it doesn't exist in the Koran...it's tradition."
It is a tradition that extends from the western coast of Africa to the Horn of Africa, and also in other countries, including Yemen, Oman, Indonesia and Malaysia. The worst form of the practise, called infibulation - the removal of the external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening - is common to Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia, and also is reported in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali and Nigeria. In the worst cases, Dirie says, a woman's vagina must be opened up and re-stitched every time she gives birth.
UNFPA officials contend that at least some progress has been made against genital mutilation since the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo three years ago this month.
Many of the countries where the practise is most prevalent have since embarked on education and sensitisation programmes about the health dangers of female circumcision. Several countries - notably Egypt, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal - have set up task forces or regional plans to eradicate genital mutilation completely.
In some areas, the programmes are paying off. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni threw his own support behind UNFPA's efforts to develop culturally-sensitive approaches to eliminating genital mutilation.
Since 1995, the agency has helped foster a programme in Uganda's Kapchorwa district where elders and community leaders were persuaded to adopt an alternative coming-of-age ceremony in which symbolic gift-giving replaces the circumcisions. Partly as a result, female genital mutilation declined by 36 percent in eastern Uganda between 1994 and 1996, UNFPA says.
Dirie says she is also going to travel to societies in the Middle East and Africa to talk about eliminating genital mutilation. But she adds that she is going to focus on the public health problems the practise poses, because she is well aware of the cultural reticence about discussing the subject at all.
"You don't talk about men, you don't talk about sex," she says of her own background. But Dirie adds that she is going to speak out now, because silence allows the terror she faced to continue. (END/IPS/fah/mk/97)
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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