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In Mauritania, progress made in ending female genital mutilation/cutting

© UNICEF Mauritania/2012/Seyfer
Mauritanian women show their support for the public declaration to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting in the region of Gorgol, southern Mauritania.

By Miriam Azar

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania, 11 October 2012 – Fatima was just a week old when she lost her life to a serious infection following her excision.

Birth attendant Latifa Ba witnessed the loss of the baby girl – a tragedy that profoundly shocked her and led her to support efforts to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

Prevalence of FGM/C

Cases like this are not uncommon in Mauritania, where some 70 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years undergo this harmful practice. FGM/C is mainly carried out on girls aged 0 to 5. Marginalized girls and women living in areas with significant levels of poverty and disparities in access to health services face notable risks of FGM/C. In regions in which prevalence is high, the figures can reach up to 98 per cent.

Each year, an estimated three million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM/C, which can cause severe and lifelong health and reproductive complications – and is a violation of their basic rights.

Working together to end the harmful practice

Since 2007, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have been working on a joint programme – Accelerating Change – to end the harmful practice in one generation in Mauritania, as well as in 16 other countries.

The two United Nations agencies are collaborating with the Government, other United Nations agencies, national and international NGOs such as Tostan, religious leaders, professional groups, community groups and bi- and multilateral cooperation agencies such as the German and Spanish agencies for international development (GIZ and AECID, respectively). The aim is to bring about behaviour change through training, sensitization campaigns and monitoring at the community level.  

Achieving milestones

At the end of September, another step was taken towards abandoning FGM/C in Mauritania: UNICEF and UNFPA, together with the Government, religious leaders and NGO partners, facilitated the fifth public declaration and fatwa (religious notice) – this time, in the region of Gorgol, southern Mauritania.

The event was part of a broader national programme launched in 2008 that is also lobbying for a law to criminalize excision.

“Communities and religious leaders are increasingly taking collective action to abandon FGM/C” and to adhere to the fatwas, said UNICEF Representative in Mauritania Lucia Elmi, who attended the launch with UNFPA Representative Dr. Koudaogo Ouedraogo. “There is an understanding not only of the importance of safeguarding the health of girls and women, but of upholding their rights, dignity, and best interests.”

Youth groups at the ceremony, which united different age groups, women, men, girls and boys from diverse communities, presented theatre sketches on the topic. Women in the audience expressed how they could identify with the scenes acted out.

Simultaneously, a new generation was being informed: Girls as young as 5 dressed in traditional attire were involved in the event. No doubt, these young girls will become future community leaders assisting in ending the practice.

Results for Mauritanian girls and women

In Mauritania, the multi-layered strategy to end FGM/C has been making progress.

In 2008 a national strategy and action plan to abandon the practice was launched on the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. In 2011, in Nouakchott, religious leaders issued a fatwa forbidding FGM/C and emphasizing the dignity of human beings in Islam.  Local religious leaders took part in launching a regional fatwa with their peers in nine other African countries – Burkina Faso, Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sudan.

The results have been positive. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey for 2011, one of the largest data collection efforts, confirms the progress.

“Together we are making a difference. From 2007 to 2011, the practice of excision among women aged 15 to 49 years declined by nearly 3 per cent,” notes Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Mauritania Mohamed Lemine Seyfer. “In areas where we are raising awareness, support for abandonment of FGM/C has risen from 38 per cent to almost 53 per cent.”

While Fatima cannot be brought back to life, her story lives on as a catalyst for this remarkable shift in Mauritanian society. Reaching out to the most marginalized and excluded populations is a priority in protecting girls and women, fulfilling their rights, and achieving equity. 



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