Cross-border female genital mutilation / cutting (FGM/C) is on the rise in West Africa according to the UN, spurring the need to impose a region-wide law banning the practice, say experts.
Experts from the region met this week to discuss how to eliminate FGM/C across West Africa, at a conference sponsored by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou.
A study sponsored by UNIFEM to be released in late October 2008 said circumcisers or girls who undergo circumcision are increasingly crossing borders to perform or undergo the procedure to operate in countries with weaker FGM/C laws, and border police can do little to stop the flow.
"There is a lack of collaboration among governments across borders because the issue is so politically sensitive to manage,” said Dieneba Ouedraogo, coordinator of the International Centre for Research Training and Action (CIRFA). As a result, she said governments have shied away from collaborating on policies and legislation or on coming up with a joint communications strategy to try to dissuade people from crossing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says FGM/C includes all procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Up to 140 million girls and women worldwide live with the consequences of FGM/C, and three million girls in Africa risk undergoing the procedure each year.
Consequences can include excessive bleeding, problems urinating, childbirth complications and stillbirths. It is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and 15 years old, according to WHO, and it is generally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
Border populations vulnerable
Girls living near borders are most vulnerable to being forcibly moved, said Ouedraogo, particularly if they are living next to countries with weaker anti FGM/C legislation than their own.
In Mali, where there is legislation relating to FGM/C but it is poorly applied, the prevalence rate is 85 percent, which makes communities living near the border in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal vulnerable, said Traoré.
Circumcisers will always travel where they can work with the least restrictions, said Elize Dossou, FGM/C expert at the Benin ministry of family and children’s affairs. So, circumcisers travel from Burkina Faso to Niger to circumcise nomad Gourmantché girls, while populations in northern Benin tend to cross the border to be circumcised in Burkina Faso, she said.
Because of this cross-border movement, the real number of FGM victims is unknown, according to Dossou.
Official FGM/C rates in Benin are 17 percent of women and girls, but she says the real number is higher.
According to UNIFEM families are sending their daughters to circumcisers to perform the practice at an increasingly young age to avoid being caught, which also distorts official figures.
At the meeting, UNIFEM officials called on health ministry and WHO officials who coordinate annual health and demographic surveys country by country to specifically target questions relating to girls 14 and under so those who underwent FGM/C would not be overlooked.
Toughen national laws
UNIFEM is also lobbying West African governments to adopt and implement laws to prosecute perpetrators of FGM/C wherever they practice, Cecile Mukarubuga UNIFEM’s Senegal-based regional director, told IRIN.
"If all countries legislate or review their laws to cover cross-border practices, I am sure it will eventually eliminate FGM,” Marian Tackie of Ghana’s Ministry of Women and Children Affairs told IRIN.
Among West African countries, only Ghana has reviewed its legislation to prosecute all perpetrators of FGM/C including those who perform outside the country, she said. In Ghana even the women who participate in the circumcision ceremony by shouting to drown out the screaming of the girls are subject to prosecution.
Most West African countries have some form of indirect or direct anti-FGM/C legislation, but in the majority it is poorly enforced, Tackie said.
But Lamine Traoré, coordinator for a project to eliminate FGM/C in Mali, said unless a region-wide law is applied, “countries which have weaker [anti-FGM/C laws] will become a hub for the practice.”
Passing a regional law would involve appeasing leaders nervous about violations of their sovereignty, said Mukarubuga.
"It is true that border issues are sensitive, but legislation for the rights of women in the region does not violate the sovereignty of countries since it is a regionally integrated zone with mutually complementary economic and social interests, which this law would serve," she explained.
Applying such a law would also require tighter collaboration among border security officials, communities, and social welfare ministries, Mukarubuga said. At the moment, volunteer civilian surveillance teams work in villages along the borders of some West African countries to monitor and report circumcisers to the authorities, but without regional legislation, Doussou said, the border police cannot pursue them across borders.
Progress on this will not be possible unless governments, non-profits and civil society organisations work with religious leaders to try to shift their resistance. UNIFEM has started by setting up a network of 16 traditional leaders in Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries to try to raise awareness among families and religious leaders.
"There is still a strong resistance from all sides now, but governments need to do more to confront these traditions," said Traoré.