afrol News, 20 August - As African Muslim women and children constitute a growing minority in Europe, Djiboutian Minister of Family Affairs Hawa Ahmed Youssouf teaches her colleagues how to fight female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and discrimination. Although Djibouti doesn't have too many successes on its own, Mrs Hawa does know how to address the problems.
Hawa Ahmed Youssouf is Djibouti's only female cabinet member, heading the Ministry for Advancement of Women, Family Welfare and Social Affairs since 1999. She presently is on a three-day official visit in Norway, and was yesterday in talks with Norway's Minister of Children and Family Affairs, Laila Dåvøy.
The two female ministers found themselves struggling against the same ills. While more than 90 percent of Djiboutian girls still fall victim to FGM practices - the number is declining, though - Norway and other European countries face an increasing problem of FGM, in particular among immigrants from Africa's Horn and West Africa. In both countries, FGM is criminalized, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for the practice.
Article 333 of the Djiboutian Penal Code "severely sanctions the authors found guilty of female genital mutilation," Hawa said at a UN conference earlier this year. Despite the 7-year-old ban, "still some 90 percent of the 7 to 8-year old girls are exposed to this harmful tradition," Hawa admitted in Oslo, Norway.
Minister Hawa however concentrated on the Djiboutian gains in the battle against FGM. She presented a Djiboutian video to her Norwegian colleague, produced to "spread knowledge about the psychical and physical damages for girls to undergo FGM." Given that 73 percent of Djibouti's population is illiterate, the broadcast media is a preferable information outlet, Hawa holds. Many African emigrants to Europe - especially women - are also illiterate.
The Djiboutian Minister further emphasised the importance of communicating with religious leaders. She had herself spoken to many imams and made them inform about the ills of FGM during the Friday prayers. Few Djiboutians realise that FGM is not a part of Islam but an older tradition and this was an important message to bring through.
Also the Norwegian government had tried to work through the large number of Muslim communities to change attitudes among FGM-practicing immigrants. Experiences had however been variable, especially because imams often are foreigners on a relatively short stay in Norway. It has further been documented that while Muslim leaders had spoken out against FGM in public, several had recommended the practice during private counselling.
Norwegian Minister Dåvøy however appreciated the experiences shared by Mrs Hawa. "It is important to know how one is working against FGM in Africa when we are trying to prevent Norwegian-Somali girls from undergoing the practice," she told the Oslo-based daily 'Aftenposten'.
Minister Hawa also arrived Oslo just in time to advice on another "hot potato" in the Norwegian public discussion on the position of female immigrant. Forced matrimony between young Muslim and/or African immigrants and relatives in their country of origin have been a widely discussed topic in Scandinavia after the "honour killing" of a prominent female Muslim in Sweden last year - assumedly by her father.
Scandinavian governments are discussing various strategies to fight forced matrimony among immigrants; one of them being to raise the age limit for marrying non-residents to 18 years. While the proposal has been labelled "racist" by some groups, Djibouti's Family Affairs Minister sees no problems. Djibouti has introduced a general 18-year age limit for marriage, explicitly to fight forced matrimony; she could inform her Norwegian colleague. The Norwegian government recently granted about euro 500,000 to fight forced matrimony.
Mrs Hawa however preached temperance to Mrs Dåvøy. To reach mothers originating from Africa's Horn, it was necessary to play by certain cultural rules, including the respect of family structures. It was understandable that Somali adults reacted to the aggressive government campaigns directed at their children, she told 'Aftenposten', recommending to emphasise information work towards parents to avoid stigmatisation.
In Djibouti, meanwhile, the Minister's fight to protect women and children goes forward in a slow pace. With the legal basis provided, no both the government and non-governmental organisations campaign against FGM. Although statistics are unavailable, health workers in the capital (Djibouti) have reported a precipitous drop in the number of hospitalisations related to FGM.
According to Mrs Hawa, Djibouti signed and ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child already in 1990 and has integrated it into its national legislation. In terms with the constitutional plight of providing education to all, Djibouti's pro-child policies have concentrated on health and education services over the last ten years. The fight against FGM is however becoming an increasingly visible part of the government's pro-child policies.