Efforts to eradicate female genital circumcision in West Africa have taken a step forward with a fatwa against the practice in Mauritania and sanctions in Niger against mothers who subject their daughters to it.
Known also as female genital mutilation (FGM), the tradition involves removing external parts of a girl's genitals and sometimes narrowing the vaginal opening. Bleeding, disease and problems in urinating and childbirth can result for millions of victims each year in Africa and the Middle East.
In many parts of West Africa, cutting has been presented as a religious obligation for Muslim women, leading many to believe that if they are not circumcised they are unclean and that their prayers will not be heard.
"Are there texts in the Koran that clearly require that thing? They do not exist," the secretary general of the Forum of Islamic Thought in Mauritania, Cheikh Ould Zein, told Reuters of the fatwa signed by 34 imams and scholars.
"On the contrary, Islam is clearly against any action that has negative effects on health. Now that doctors in Mauritania unanimously say this practice threatens health, it is therefore clear that Islam is against it," he added.
The fatwa, or religious ruling, was signed on January 12 but became widely known only this week in a country where some 72 percent of women are estimated to have undergone FGM and where practitioners charge an average 25 euros a time.
"The fact that the religious leaders in Mauritania are standing up and doing this is quite amazing," said Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, a Senegal-based organisation working in Mauritania on FGM.
MOTHERS FACE PUNISHMENT
The fatwa in itself is not binding, and would not have an impact on those communities practising FGM for centuries-old cultural reasons not linked to the arrival of Islam in Africa.
Yet it follows other tentative indications of a trend away from FGM in West Africa.
A Save the Children-backed campaign has seen 40 villages in Mali abandon the practice in a country where over 80 percent of the women have undergone FGM. In Senegal, the practice has been widely stopped since a law against it was passed in 1999.
In a sign that authorities in Niger are implementing a 2003 ban, 45 mothers in the southwestern town of Kollo received fines and suspended jail sentences of eight months this week for complicity in allowing their daughters to be cut.
Welfare specialist Moussa Hassane told Reuters that aside from the usual forms of excision, practioners in Niger used the technique to facilitate sexual relations with child brides.
Niger has one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world, with nearly 60 percent of women married between 15-19.
UN agency UNICEF statistics show a sharp fall in Niger in the incidence of FGM in the past decade masking stark ethnic differences, with three percent of Arab women circumcised but nearly two-thirds of some other tribal groups.
"A law is not what will change a social norm. For it to be sustainable it has to come from the people, a decision made by the people, because they really believe in it," Melching said.
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