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Partnering to change norms and abandon female genital cutting in Central African Republic

© UNICEF/CAR/2008/Holtz
Little girls become victims of age-old practices. In the Central African Republic about 28% of women are circumcised.

Bangui, Central African Republic, 6 February 2009 - “If I can prevent just one girl from having to go through what I’ve experienced, then I’ve achieved something,” Foncy Kongo, 29

Every year, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), most of these girls live in Africa. Although most governments have prohibited FGM - the partial or total removal of external genitalia - the practice persists illegally.

In the Central African Republic (CAR) about 28% of women are circumcised. In the capital city of Bangui a group of determined women work to change this. The women are part of an organization called CIAF, or the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, which operates in 28 countries across the continent.

“Since 1966 FGM has been forbidden by national law. The problem is that the law was agreed upon but no action was ever taken to ensure its real application,” says Marguerite Ramadan, President of CIAF in CAR which mainly operates in Bangui. “What we do is to raise public awareness as to the dangers of FGM and we ensure decision makers that we are here to support them in abolishing harmful practices. Because in fact, FGM is just one of several harmful traditional practices, which women in our country face.”

Renforcing the legislation by community-based actions

UNICEF is now entering a partnership with CIAF/CAR. The provision of vehicles, a database system and training of CIAF staff and additional volunteers will play a vital role in spreading their message beyond the capital city.

Foncy Kongo is a 29-year old woman. She is the CIAF representative in one of Bangui’s eight councils. “Together with 6 other volunteers, it’s my task to organise events where we highlight that women are equal to men, that women have rights too and that practices such as FGM are very harmful,” says Kongo sitting on her verandah at the back of a house she shares with several families. “Besides this we function as the eyes and the ears of the council. If we hear of a case of abuse we report it to the appropriate authorities. In most cases we also go to speak with the people involved.”

Kongo tells of a recent episode where she got word of a family planning to circumcise their two young daughters. “I went to the house straight away. I didn’t lecture but I listened and we spoke and I shared my knowledge with the parents,” says Kongo.

Playing a part in change

But what is it that motivates a young woman to volunteer her time in a destitute country where most people are hectically battling to survive? “I’m a victim of FGM myself. I know the pain and the effects circumcision have on a woman’s life. That is what propels me. If I can prevent just one girl from having to go through what I’ve experienced, then I’ve achieved something,” says Kongo. She looks determined and confident as she recounts her story.

As a 10-year old growing up in Bria, central CAR, Kongo was used to hearing about girls undergoing circumcision. “It is part of our traditional culture, like a rite of passage into womanhood. Most women in my family are circumcised and even in school there was peer pressure as the girls would contest their ‘womanhood’,” says Kongo. When her turn came she ran away from home only to be dragged back to the house a few hours later. “I was scared. I’d heard of girls who died because they lost too much blood.”

Kongo did not die but she experienced immense pain and urinal repercussions in the aftermath of the intrusion. In CAR there are no statistics showing the number of girls suffering death or chronic complications as a consequence of FGM. However, 2008 data indicates that FGM is found mainly in rural areas and predominantly in the central regions of CAR. In Bangui some 17% of women are circumcised whereas more than 71% of women in Haute Kotto, where Kongo grew up, are victims of FGM.

Prevalence rate is decreasing

On a positive note, the practice of FGM in CAR has decreased during the last decade from around 43% in 1995 to approximately 27% in 2006. Marguerite Ramadan, President of CIAF/CAR believes continued efforts in public awareness contribute to this reduction. “Radio and TV spots, newspaper articles and community events all help raise the awareness of this harmful practice,” says Ramadan. “The more we talk the better and our aim is to be visible throughout the country. But to fully eradicate FGM we need to have the authorities on our side enforcing the law.”

UNICEF continue to advocate for the eradication of FGM, applied law enforcement and CAR’s ratification of the additional protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child concerning FGM.  International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation is a UNICEF-sponsored awareness day that takes place February 6 each year.

CIAF's vision is a society in which African women and girls fully enjoy their rights to live free from the effects of harmful traditional practices.

by Rebecca Bannor-Addae



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