Human rights classes aim to end female circumcision

14th July 2000 at 01:00

A GRASSROOTS education campaign to end female circumcision will pass a significant milestone next month when 25 villages in the conservative north of Senegal declare it extinct in their region.

Female circumcision or genital cutting is an excruciating operation which is carried out by traditional cutters in this west African country without anaesthetic.

It involves cutting away the most sensitive part of a girl's body, the clitoris and labia where 8,000 nerve endings meet. But the girls are told not to scream, because that will shame their family.

Across Senegal 20 per cent of women are circumcised in this way, depending on their local ethnic tradition; across Africa 130 million women have been circumcised and 2m girls a year face the unsterilised blade and its often fatal consequences.

"Many girls have died," says Khadidiatou Talla, president of the federation of human rights groups for the 25 villages.

She said she knew of at least 20 to 25 girls who had died, mainly because when they started bleeding heavily, people simply left them to die, fearing they would be punished if they took them for life-saving medical treatment.

Dirty knives can cause sterility and spread infection, including the HIV virus - adding to the savage toll of Africans dying of Aids. These risks are compounded by the fact that most girls are circumcised in groups by a single unserilised blade.

The task of persuading powerful village elders to break with fiercely-guarded rites handed down by their ancestors is a slow and uncertain process, especially in village societies where women are traditionally marginalised.

Encouraged by a voluntary organisation, Tostan, or "Breakthrough", Ms Talla's village groups launched a public crusade to educate and persuade villagers to outlaw genital cutting.

They introduced classes in which villagers studied the rights of men, women and children. They also elected representatives including Demba Diallo, 10, the first child elected to a public body, to deal with human rights problems.

"At the classes, we learned our rights and responsiblities - that women have the right to health, to credit and to land," said Ms Talla. "Next we decided to sensitise people on female genital cutting, so they would abandon the process."

Their campaign, launched three years ago by Tostan with funding from the UN Children's Fund, has already prompted the government to outlaw genital cutting.

By August 18, when the Fouta villages declare their opposition, it will mean 200 out of 5,500 villages in Senegal that practise circumcision will have been won over.

"We have to get public declarations - just like they did in China with footbinding," said the head of Tostan, Molly Melching. "But it has to come from themselves."

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