Alternatives to female genital mutilation in Guinea-Bissau 

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WomenWatch (UN)

afrol News, 22 January - "Sinim Mira Nassigue" means, "we think about the future," and it also means the hope of avoiding female genital mutilation for an increasing number of young women in Guinea-Bissau. The non-governmental organisation is presenting alternative rites to traditional rural societies.

Engaged Guinean women and men with a very limited funding established Sinim Mira Nassigue a few years ago. It now has established support centres in Buba, Gabú and Massabá, where its members daily go from house to house to sensitise the communities about the harmful consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM).

- Mothers believe they cannot marry off their daughters otherwise, says Maria Augusta Baldé, founder of the organisation. According to some local traditions, uncut women are not even clean enough to prepare food.

Mrs Baldé earns her living from her job in the Ministry of Health, but her spare time is devoted to Sinim Mira Nassigue, which is not able to pay salaries to its volunteers. The workload is tough, but it pays off in practical results. 

The organisation recently supervised a "fanado modelo", an alternative initiation rite for 35 young girls. All traditional parts of the ceremony were followed and the girls left the scene accepted as pure, but without being mutilated. 

Speaking to the 'Berliner Zeitung' recently, Mrs Baldé told the German daily how they invite the girls, the women who perform the cut and a drummer. "Than, all what belongs to the ancient initiation rites happens, but the body remains untouched," Mrs Baldé said. "Knifes and blades are banned. One has to preserve the cultural aspect and get rid of the brutal part," she concluded.

The organisation emphasises on the importance of including the "fanatecas" (the female circumcisers) in the process. These women have strong commercial interests in maintaining the practice and it would be unwise and unfair to deprive them of their income and high social status. Further, the fanatecas play other important social roles, such as the passing of women's traditions and experiences through their large network. When the fanatecas start supervising the alternative rites, these will be even more easily spread and the tradition bearers are assured of their future income, the organisation maintains.

The debate on FGM only started in the early 1980s in Guinea-Bissau, as in neighbouring countries, and was an "imported" issue. International gender and human rights organisations, together with UN agencies, pinpointed the issue, which soon became an issue of public debate, at least in urban areas. Actionism started with the National Committee for the Elimination of Harmful Practices against Women and Children, which was set up by the government in the early 1990s. 

In 1995, a government proposal to outlaw FGM was defeated in parliament, but practitioners were to be held criminally responsible if a woman dies as a result of FGM. As the Guinean government has shown little interest in following up the fight against FGM, Sinim Mira Nassigue has developed into the main driving force in this fight. 

Although the practice is widespread in Guinea-Bissau, its prevalence and forms are different from area to area and from people to people. Amnesty International has estimated than around half of the Guinean women undergo FGM, both clitoridectomy and excision. In areas inhabited by the Fula and Mandinka people, FGM prevalence reaches up to 80 percent. In urban areas, however, the prevalence has now dropped to 20-30 percent.

Sinim Mira Nassigue also finds it easier to campaign against FGM in urban areas, as the issue is well known there and a majority rejects the practice. Most urban men and women see the practice as barbaric and outdated.

In rural areas, the situation is different. Little information about the health risks and the religious framework has reached out to Guinean villages. A recent study by the Austrian Society for Family Planning (ASFP) concluded that especially rural women in Guinea-Bissau still had strong arguments for exposing their daughters to the harmful cut. 

Guinean women told ASFP the principal justification for going on with FGM were moral or religious; maintaining virginity; bride prices or family honour; anatomic/aesthetic reasons; need for social integration; preventing child mortality; and hygienic reasons.

A group of women from Guinea-Bissau told ASFP; "As good Muslims we must be circumcised. In that way we will be ensured to have a proper Muslim burial ceremony. As wives, we need to be cleaned by the circumcision ritual in order to be able to prepare food for our husbands." 

Especially among the Fula and Mandinka people the popular belief is widespread, the FGM practice is an essential part of Islam, a point of view without any base in the Holy Koran or among the majority of Muslim clergy. That the connection made between FGM and Islam is unreasonable is underlined by the fact that FGM has a significantly higher prevalence in Guinea-Bissau (where only 37 percent of the population is Muslim) than in neighbouring Senegal (85 percent Muslims).

Informing about these misconceptions in rural Guinea-Bissau is the biggest challenge of Sinim Mira Nassique. Activists visit villages; talk to local clerics, village elder's councils and single families. "Step by step it becomes possible to analyse the problem of FGM, examine religious and medical justifications and talk about the alternatives," the group explains its work.

An activist tells that "many young women do not see any connection between their circumcision and later medical complications ... and sexual problems," thus concluding that the information work is an enormous task.

Mostly, rural men, including religious leaders, are open to the input received from the activists and are shocked by learning about the health risks attached to FGM. Rural women are often more difficult to win for the task, mistrusting young men's intentions and believing their daughters will not become married. It was only by presenting an alternative ritual that Sinim Mira Nassigue started noting successes among rural mothers.

Mrs Baldé believes the campaigns are bearing fruit, and the recent "fanados modelos" supervised by her group demonstrate they are on the right path. They however still hope for better funding and more active support from the government. That government support makes a great difference is demonstrated in neighbouring Senegal.

Action against FGM in general has been more vigorous in Senegal, and Senegalese President Wade himself in October last year launched a campaign to "eliminate the practice in the country within the next four years." The campaign was presented in Tambacounda, close to the border with Guinea-Bissau, one of the few areas in Senegal where FGM is widely practiced.

Meanwhile, the Guinean government only gives some limited support to groups conducting educational seminars and publicity on FGM. Its own actions against the practice have been virtually non-existent the last years, in contrast to Senegal and in contrast to Mrs Baldé's group. 

Sources: Based on RDP, Sinim Mira Nassigue through Weltfriedensdienst, 
ASFP, Amnesty, Berliner Zeitung, UNFPA and afrol archives 


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