The death of a 14-year-old girl from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) has sparked shock and anger in Burkina Faso, which has been seen as far ahead of other African countries in the fight against the practice.
“Sorrowful and shocking" is how Aïna Ouédraogo, permanent secretary of the National Committee for the Fight against Excision (CNLPE), described the girl's death.
The teenager was one of 15 girls – aged 4 to 14 – who were circumcised the week of 17 September in the rural town of Pabre, 15km from the capital, Ouagadougou, CNLPE's Ouédraogo told IRIN.
Seven of the girls are currently being treated at a Ouagadougou hospital for infections and haemorrhaging, Ouédraogo added.
The 80-year-old woman performing the cutting and some of the girls’ relatives have been arrested. They face a fine of up to 900,000 CFA francs (US$1,944) and up to three years in jail. Because the cutting resulted in a death, the woman faces a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Awareness vs. conviction
The girl's death – the first from FGM/C in two years according to the CNPLE – has shaken people.
“It means there is resistance and we need to seek new strategies so that people can give up the practice that some still believe to be of divine origin,” Ouédraogo said.
The CNPLE is preparing a new FGM/C strategy for the next decade.
Local newspapers on 26 September reported another five cases of FGM/C in Burkina’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, Marie Berthe Ouédraogo, chief of child protection for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Burkina Faso, told IRIN. The same day, she received a call about a case in Dédougou in the west of the country. On 26 September, the national radio announced that in this case police had arrested a 70-year-old woman for circumcising a baby and a seven-year-old. Among the three accomplices arrested was the baby’s father, who had been trained by the CNPLE and was responsible for monitoring FGM/C.
“It’s shocking and discouraging,” UNICEF’s Ouédraogo said, adding, “I was very angry when I heard about [the death in Pabre].”
All the more so, she said, because it occurred in an area where the CNPLE and UNICEF had been conducting an awareness campaign through local radio stations. Pabre had been identified as an area of “high prevalence” of FGM/C in a 2005 study by the CNPLE.
“What does this mean? That even if people are aware that FGM/C is not a good thing, there are still those who are not convinced,” UNICEF’s Ouédraogo told IRIN.
“We must innovate. We must find new strategies... We must change the way we give the message.”
A long fight
For nearly two decades, Burkina’s government has made efforts to combat FGM/C, considered by many as a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood and a way of preventing sexual promiscuity.
The government has trained religious, traditional and political leaders, police and the media and has set up a national telephone hotline people can call if they suspect female genital cutting is about to take place.
Burkina Faso was one of the first countries to outlaw FGM/C, and has been implementing the law. Burkina’s First Lady is the honorary chairperson of the national committee against FGM/C. Campaigns to inform people of the risks have been widespread in Burkina for years, unlike in some neighbouring countries, where the subject is still taboo.
Still, social pressure to undergo the procedure remains strong in some parts. Rasmane Kiemde, a civil servant, told IRIN that he has to be vigilant with regard to his two daughters.
“I am always under pressure from my relatives who want to have them undergo [the procedure]. So far they have failed,” Kiemde said. “Do not make a mistake and send them on holidays. That gives [relatives] the OK to perform it.”
The CNPLE and UNICEF say the recent death must not overshadow progress made in the fight to eradicate the practice in Burkina Faso.
The 2005 CNLPE study showed that the national prevalence of FGM/C had dropped from 77 percent in 2001 to 49.5 percent in 2005.
“We can’t view this latest incident in isolation and say that we have failed in the fight [against FGM/C], because other evaluations have shown the practice is decreasing,” the CNLPE’s Ouédraogo said. “It is a belief rooted in the social system and it will take time to disappear.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 100 million to 140 million girls and women around the world have undergone FGM/C. Estimates suggest that three million girls – the majority under 15 years of age – are cut every year.
FGM/C is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other cutting of the female genital organs for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. Its consequences are physical (severe pain, cysts, urine retention, haemorrhaging, difficulties during child birth and even death), psychological and sexual, according to the WHO, which says the procedure can be "severely disabling".
“We have to persevere,” said UNICEF’s Ouédraogo, adding that the agency needed more funds to intensify awareness work. “It will be a long fight.”