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Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a harmful traditional practice that is prevalent in a number of African countries. Eradicating this practice in refugee camps is particularly challenging because of the diverse backgrounds and cultures represented in the camps. Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps, which house about 132,000 people, were formed in 1991 as refugees fled the civil war in Somalia. While the majority of the refugees are Somalis, the camps also house Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Ugandans, Burundians, and Congolese.
The predominant type of FGM practiced among the refugees (mostly within the Somali community) is pharaonic circumcision—this involves the complete removal of the clitoris and consequent closing up of the vaginal opening, leaving a small passage for urine and menses. Most of the girls circumcised are very young, between six and twelve. Other members of the refugee community practice the sunna, which is a milder form of the practice and involves the pricking, or slight cutting off, of the tip of the clitoris. In our work through the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence program of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to combat FGM, we target all communities that practice female circumcision in the camps, irrespective of the form of mutilation.
People in the camps claim to practice FGM for a variety of reasons: it is a religious obligation and a tradition; it is believed to ensure virginity until marriage; it gives sexual pleasure to men and enhances their manhood; and it controls the sexual desires of women and girls. Others feel that their daughters would not be accepted by society if they did not undergo the process. As one refugee woman told us, “The practice adds to a family’s honor and prestige in the community. Who would not want to bring honor to her family?”
The Sexual and Gender-Based Violence program at the Dadaab refugee camps began its work in 1993 with an emphasis on preventing rape within the camps. By 2000 the program expanded its focus to other forms of violence, particularly harmful cultural practices such as FGM. Our program represents a collaborative effort between local and international NGOs and the host government, and is comprised of representatives from various local and international organizations who have grassroots influence and understanding of the situation.
While laws preventing FGM are valuable for underpinning education efforts and giving credibility to those working to eradicate a harmful practice, criminalizing those who practice FGM can inhibit discussions on the issue and lead those involved to go underground as they seek alternative means of continuing the practice. In light of this, we choose instead to focus on changing people’s perceptions of the practice––particularly through emphasizing people’s right to health within a larger human rights framework.
We find that using a human rights approach is helpful because most of the refugees have already been exposed to human rights messages through the UNHCR Protection Unit’s mass information campaigns on human rights issues affecting the refugees. Because people are aware of their basic rights and needs, it is therefore relatively easy to address FGM in the context of human, women’s, and children’s rights. More significantly, a human rights perspective sets FGM in the context of women’s social and economic powerlessness. Recognizing that civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights are indivisible and interdependent is a crucial starting point for addressing the range of underlying factors behind the perpetuation of this practice.
Although Kenyan national law—which has jurisdiction over all Dadaab refugees—bans the practice of FGM under the 2002 Children’s Act, we discovered that relying too much on law can backfire. For instance, when the first case against FGM was prosecuted in the camps in August 2002, the refugees and local community held demonstrations claiming that their right to practice their culture and religion was being violated. As some said, “Now the international community and the government do not have any work to do. They are too idle, that is why they want to engage in such petty activities.” Not only did the legal approach cause resentment, it also led many people to find ways simply to avoid the law. For example, during an exercise involving the resettlement of Somali Bantu refugees to the United States shortly after this case was prosecuted, many took to circumcising their daughters, some as young as one and a half, in the camps once they were informed that this is a criminal offense in the country of resettlement.
The strategy that has worked best as a primary tactic is emphasizing the right to health. When we focus on the health implications of the operation, refugees become more receptive, because they are able to relate this to the health problems that are commonly referred to at the health centers in the camps, which are run by a UNHCR partner organization. Many are aware of their right to attain the highest standards of health and recognize the health risks to which female circumcision exposes women and girls.
When we explain that the chronic infections, intermittent bleeding, and abscesses resulting from clitoridectomy and excision cause discomfort and extreme pain, residents of the camp begin to understand how this practice violates their daughters’ right to health. First, sexual intercourse can take place only after gradual and painful dilation of the opening, and in some cases cutting is necessary before intercourse can take place. In addition, FGM increases the risk of HIV transmission during intercourse. It can also cause complications during childbirth, when existing scar tissue on excised women may tear. In many cases, infibulated women have to be cut to allow the baby to emerge; after giving birth, they are often reinfibulated to make them “tight” for their husbands.
While we emphasize that FGM violates human rights standards, our campaign recognizes that those practicing FGM believe in its importance, and that any changes in a community’s culture occur over a long period of time. In this light, we have tried to engage the community to move away from the worst form of circumcision to the less severe sunna as a means of working toward a total abandonment of the whole practice. This has slowly been accepted by some sections of the community, particularly those who are strong adherents to their culture.
Whether emphasizing the health or religious aspects of FGM, our philosophy has been to involve all groups in society—mothers, girls, traditional birth attendants, men, health workers, religious leaders, and, in some cases, circumcisers themselves. We lead small group meetings, which are conducive to open and frank discussions since most of the participants feel free to discuss these issues without fear of provoking the wrath of the community. This strategy builds on the presumption that by convincing a few people that this practice is harmful, it will be easier to reach out to the rest of the community. In our discussions with circumcisers, for instance, we are aware of the need to provide alternative forms of income. As one FGM practitioner told us, “I commanded a lot of respect, more than even the religious leaders. But now that you want me to stop this, what will happen to my status in the society? Where will I earn my little money for survival?” It is also important to work with men because they exert a lot of influence in the community. If we could change the thinking of the majority of men in the camps, this would be a crucial step toward changing attitudes toward the practice in general.
In the long run, however, we believe that the key to ending this harmful practice is to increase women’s empowerment. The incidence of harmful practices such as FGM decreases with higher rates of female literacy, since education empowers girls and women to understand and appreciate their bodies and value themselves, enabling them to make informed decisions about their own lives. Therefore, we support all initiatives to promote girls’ education.
The fight against FGM in a refugee situation is a unique aspect of UNHCR’s work. Our Sexual and Gender-Based Violence program is, by its very existence, somewhat subversive in that its intent is to influence change in long-standing cultural and societal norms that perpetuate the disempowerment and oppression of females. We seek to empower women and engage men in promoting gender equity to reduce some of these harmful traditional practices. This is a sensitive and complex undertaking that has to be carefully planned, especially when working with traditional cultures such as those represented in the camps, among people who are trying to retain the few cultural values they have left in a foreign land.
Read "Law: A Powerful Force," a response to this article by Anne Gathumbi-Masheti. Use the link in the right column to access the article.