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Senegal bans female genital mutilation

Thursday, 14 Janaury 1999: UNICEF applauded the Parliament of Senegal for its approval late yesterday of legislation to ban female genital mutilation (FGM), a painful, traumatic and dangerous procedure which partially or totally removes female genitalia.

"Senegal's action is of great significance," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said, "because it reflects the resolve of African women to end a cruel and unacceptable practice which violates the right of all girls to free, safe and healthy lives."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 130 million women and girls -- the bulk of them in 28 African countries -- have been subjected to female genital mutilation. More than two million, ranging in age from infants a few days old to mature women, are genitally mutilated every year. Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudan account for 75 per cent of all cases. In Djibouti and Somalia, 98 per cent of girls are mutilated.

UNICEF, together with WHO and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), has actively supported the global movement to sharply reduce FGM in the next decade and eliminate it completely within three generations. In Senegal, UNICEF provided financial and communication support to local NGO's which helped spark the movement against genital mutilation.

Ms. Bellamy said the legislation is a testament to the courage of the Senegalese women of the village of Malicounda who began the movement to overturn FGM, a custom profoundly entrenched in many traditional societies. She said it was thanks to the women's determination to overcome deep-seated beliefs that husbands and male village elders were persuaded to take an oath to end FGM. The campaign spread to other villages, particularly after President Abdou Diouf put his full support behind the movement.

Senegal's legislation, which provides stiff fines and jail terms for offenders, was passed after hearings in which village women lobbied Parliament for support to abolish the practice. To date, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry and Togo have outlawed FGM.

"Senegal's example is a dramatic message that women acting in their communities can be a powerful force in changing violent, abhorrent customs that deny their rights and those of their children," Ms. Bellamy said.

Female genital mutilation, an excruciatingly painful operation often carried out with crude, unsterile instruments, is believed to maintain chastity and improve a girl's marriage prospects. Beyond drastically limiting normal bodily functions and destroying the capacity for sexual pleasure, genital mutilation can cause scarring, infection and long-term physical and psychological complications. It can sometimes lead to death.

In order to ensure that progressive changes take hold and that the ban on female genital mutilation, in Senegal and elsewhere, is successfully implemented, Ms. Bellamy stressed the continuing need to provide women and girls with empowering educational opportunities that help transform attitudes and cultural norms.

"Women around the world who have the courage to take a stand on female genital mutilation need sustained international support in order to convince their societies to move away from this horrendous practice," Ms. Bellamy said. "Senegal's action shows the tremendous effect that investment in education and attention to girls' and women's rights can have in bringing about positive change and helping to end suffering for millions of women worldwide."

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1999/1

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