|© UNICEF Niger/2008/Onimus-Pfortner|
|Haissa, who has vowed to end female genital mutilation/cutting in her village, is herself a former practitioner of FGM/C.|
By Joelle Onimus-Pfortner & Gaelle Bausson
NIAMEY, Niger, 28 May 2008 – Haissa’s life has forever changed. Her village has publicly vowed to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), asking practitioners to “put down the knife” and put an end to the practice.
Haissa, 45, who underwent cutting at the age of 7, began performing the procedure herself at the age of 10, inheriting the family trade. She estimates that she performed FGM/C on approximately 400 girls, several of whom died from complications.
According to UNICEF, some 70 million women and girls aged 15-27 in the Middle East and Africa have been victims of FGM/C. Many girls are traumatized by the experience and suffer in silence, most out of fear of being ostracized by their communities.
Geographic and ethnic disparities
The harmful consequences of FGM/C may include both deterioration in reproductive health and the psychological toll on the victim. The practice increases maternal and child mortality rates and increases the vulnerability of girls and women to HIV/AIDS.
According to UNICEF Niger, the rate of FGM/C among women aged 15 to 49 has decreased by more than half, from 5 per cent in 1998 to 2.2 per cent in 2006. These statistics, however, conceal great geographic and ethnic disparities: 65.9 per cent of Gourmantche women, 12.4 per cent of Peul women and 3.4 per cent of Arab women having been victims of FGM/C, while the regions of Tillabery, Diffa and Niamey carry the highest procedural rates.
The decrease in FGM/C is in part due to the passing of new legislation and the combination of several strategies at the community and national levels.
Positive social change
Since 1992, UNICEF has been working with the Nigerian Committee on Traditional Practices (CONIPRAT), a non-governmental organization, to tackle the problem of FGM/C in Niger.
A positive social change strategy, put in place in 2007 by CONIPRAT, aims to change social conventions through non-formal education providing community members with new knowledge and skills. The strategy also works to promote dialogues between women and men, and across generations. These activities have proven effective when used to enhance human rights.
The social change programme encourages communities to raise problems and define solutions on a variety of concerns. In order to stimulate lasting change, sensitive issues such as FGM/C must be addressed within the community.
‘Starting a new life’
As a result of these efforts by UNICEF and CONIPRAT, Haissa became aware of the harmful consequences of FGM/C and was convinced that the procedure had nothing to do with practicing her Islamic faith. She also learned that in 2003, a law was passed in Niger, with UNICEF’s support, to penalize the practice of FGM/C.
Most important, the UNICEF and CONIPRAT programme gave Haissa and other women practicing FGM/C the means to learn a new trade. They were offered training in gardening and each got a plot of land to subsidize their family’s needs.
“What convinced me to abandon the practice of FGM/C,” said Haissa, “is understanding the link between FGM and women’s health. I am now proud of starting a new life.”