Tuesday, January 8, 2008

FGM in the marriage market

On August 15, 2004 Madam Adama Barry was arrested in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso for performing female circumcision on 16 girls between the ages of 2 and 10. It wasn’t the first time Ms. Barry had seen the inside of a jail in Ouagadougou. In fact, this unrepentant female circumciser has already served four short jail terms for her part in these illegal coming-of-age rituals. To the government, the arrest of a 70-year-old woman proves how serious they are in tackling female genital mutilation.

Madam Barry’s arrest also shows just how far the country has to go in its fight against female excision. When Burkina Faso became the fifth African country to outlaw female circumcision in 1996, people hoped for a quick end to this social practice that had endured centuries. But today, nearly two-thirds of all women are still circumcised—down from 70 percent twenty years ago. Why are the government’s actions – and a large amount of Western aid money – taking so long to take hold in Burkina Faso?

It’s called by many names: Female Genital Mutilation. Excision. Female Circumcision. And it’s practice predates the introduction of Islam and Christianity in Africa, a continent where 130 million women have undergone the procedure and perhaps two million young girls continue to go through it each year.

By definition, excision is the removal of some or all of a woman’s genitalia. According to scientists, there are three different excision procedures. We’ll list them from least invasive to most invasive. The most medically limited procedure is the removal of part or the entire clitoris. The second procedure, and of higher intrusiveness, is additionally cutting away the inner labia; finally, the most invasive procedure includes cutting away the outer labia, which forces the vagina to be sewn shut.

This practice of female circumcision has become something of a cause célèbre among many people – Westerners, notably – who condemn it as an unhealthy attack on the human rights and sexual rights of unknowing young girls. They bring up the pain these young women go through; the dangers of using unclean utensils to carry out the operation; the build up of scar tissue that makes urination (or childbirth) difficult. Others rebut that excision is no different than expensive cosmetic surgery westerners have performed: they both address the need to be more attractive and desirable.

There are many theories on why it FGM takes place. Some claim the practice makes women complete, eliminating any resemblance to males. Others contest that an infant passing through the birth canal will die if it touches the mother’s clitoris. Other versions claim it is no different than foot binding in China: a practice of fidelity control to prevent women from straying. (Women who cannot have an orgasm will most likely not want to sleep with anyone other than their husband.)

The problem is that Burkina Faso outlawed the practice more than ten years ago – its eradication is a pet project of the first lady – but support for excision remains widespread. Side story: A gardener at an office I worked at in Ouagadougou was arrested for having it performed on one of his young girls. He spent a few nights in jail and then was forced to pay a fine. He returned to work unyielding in his belief that the custom should continue. One reason for his stubbornness, we later found out, was that he was reported to the authorities by his sister in law who didn’t like him. The feeling remains mutual, I was told.

The problem with circumcision is its social resilience. Traditions like dowries and scarification have largely been phased out. Why not FGM? Is it because the practice is wrapped up in sex roles, and in an agricultural society those roles are hard to change? Maybe.

Or, perhaps FGM's critics have been fighting the wrong battle.

Two researchers at the University of Auckland, Tatyana Chesnokova and Rhema Vaithianathan, take a different route and investigate excision as primarily an economic issue, claiming that families view the procedure as a premarital investment. Their have their young girls excised because the number of desirable men looking to marry circumcised women remains high. Getting circumcised increases the chances of marrying a successful man.

However, excision marks only an investment for the women, the researchers say in their paper Female Genital Cutting and Marital Outcomes. It is women alone who bore the great health risks and experience the possible side effects, including infection, possible sterilization, death.

The argument goes that if there would be no circumcised females, men would have no incentive to search for them. With more than three-quarters of Burkinabé women still practicing excision, that’s a long shot. However, if regulations against FGM could drive rates low enough, the professors argue, then perhaps these men will look for other aspects of female desire.

One way to do this is to take the economic advantage out of FGM. That means providing women with economic opportunities outside of marriage. A successful woman will attract successful men, the thinking goes. The researchers don’t go into details, but one could surmise beginning with increasing education for girls (which will augment employment potential) or at least increasing opportunities for training. Other possibilities include finding more jobs outside of the household for women or increasing the worth of female-exclusive occupations, like the production of shea butter.

It’s a long shot. For one, excision has been practiced – some say – since the second century. It’s hard to stamp something like that out. On the other hand, the possibility of a big treasure at the end of the day has spelt death for more than a few old traditions.

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