Housewives submit to their husbands
Mutilation as a Cross-Border Problem - Why We Interfere
When I came across the subject of genital mutilation four years ago, the number of 100 million women, mainly in Africa, who are mutilated by cutting out their clitoris and labia, was circulating. It is frightening that such practices exist, and even more frightening that all reports of hunger, underdevelopment, poverty and other disasters on the African continent deliberately conceal the existence of these practices.
In the reactions to this topic, the keyword culture was heard again and again. This is a matter of cultural conditions in which we cannot interfere, according to the opinion of institutions, organizations and even scientists. This shows how sensitive this topic is and how deeply it is culturally and traditionally anchored. It was only with TERRE DES FEMMES that there were female comrades who were courageous enough to tackle the topic. TERRE DES FEMMES carried out campaigns in the early 1980s to draw attention to genital mutilation as a violation of human rights and to create readiness for action here in Germany as well. This was repeatedly and heavily criticized - with reference to the other culture. There were allegations such as racism, cultural imperialism and Eurocentrism. Although genital mutilation is now clearly characterized as violence against women and thus as a violation of human rights, there is still a discussion about whether we should be allowed to interfere.
100 million girls and women affected
There has certainly been an integration of genital mutilation into culture or tradition. But that does only a small part to ensure that genital mutilation is maintained
and to subject the entire female population to these practices. I believe that a very perfidious system is responsible for this. It is noticeable that the motive is identical regardless of the country: the virginity of the girls and the loyalty of the future wives should be preserved. For me, virginity and chastity are terms that are synonymous with male claims to domination. They are used to suppress female sexuality and to control the fertility of women by men. In my opinion, this motive alone justifies interference, because it is just as unacceptable as the practices themselves. The idea of circumcision is to remove the male foreskin as the female part and the clitoris as the male part in order to clearly define the gender. I am interested in what constitutes this aspect of the clitoris and in doing so I necessarily come to its function, namely to provide women with sexual pleasure, regardless of their husbands. Apparently women should only produce offspring.
These reasons, which are given quite officially, already put considerable pressure on the women, which leads them to agree to their mutilation. But I believe that with these justifications alone, such a practice could not be sustained. Rather, this can be traced back to the various forms of repression that are used for genital mutilation and other forms of violence. These are very effective because women are constantly threatened with taking their livelihood away from them - in the form of social ostracism, isolation,
of inheritance or land law. There is also the threat of not getting married if they are not mutilated. This extreme power imbalance between men and women is also enshrined in law and supported by misogynist ideologies. These define women as both inferior and dangerous. The interpretation of religions and the norms derived from them also play their part in making something like this possible. In addition, women are valued if they submit to this system or actively participate in maintaining it. We encounter this vicious circle of dependencies and the resulting potential for violence in the context of violence against women again and again and I consider them to be cross-cultural and globally relevant.
The fact that this violence is subsequently incorporated into the culture serves as an essential strategy to prevent the victims from questioning.
Finally, tabooing is another factor that prevents victims from grappling with their experience of violence and recognizing their oppression - which would be the first step in eliminating it. If genital mutilation is removed from this pseudo-cultural context, the question of interference is superfluous.
Consequences of the mutilation
What is all too often overlooked is the traumatization of the victims - as has also been found in connection with torture. As a result, women who are victims themselves are massively attached to the justifications and reasons mentioned. This is a survival strategy that makes it possible to suppress this personal suffering. The consequences for health and quality of life also influence the overall development of these countries: up to 30% of girls do not survive this mutilation, they die from blood loss, from neurogenic shock due to the pain or from infections. Those who survive wear life-
long-term consequences: cysts, abscesses, chronic infections that can lead to infertility and pain during sexual intercourse.
A direct connection between the high maternal mortality rate in Africa and genital mutilation has not yet been investigated. But it is about time. A comparison between the African countries that do not practice these practices, northern and southern Africa, and the countries that practice genital mutilation shows that the maternal mortality rate in these countries is between 35 and 54% higher than in the other countries. More than two million women in Africa suffer from fistulas that make them incontinent, which has social consequences: They are isolated, they are not able to function as a community. It is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 girls become victims of these fistulas in connection with childbirth. It is known from Nigeria and Ethiopia that this problem has grown to such an extent that special clinics have been set up for it.
There are also indications of the connection between genital mutilation and AIDS, because the operation is not carried out with clean instruments, and because the scarring that occurs again and again during sexual intercourse makes it possible for AIDS to be transmitted.
FGM prevents development
Under these conditions, sustainable development in these countries is not possible, and therefore all possibilities must be used to fight against these practices.
And one last point: in all of these countries there are now committees that are working to ensure that these practices are abolished. We have three of these women as speakers here today.
It is entirely up to us to give these women the support they need and want. We not only have a right but also an obligation to use logistical, material and political means to ensure that this oppression finally comes to an end.
Why do we interfere? We interfere because we've been asked. Incidentally, this question of interference is only asked in Germany; it has never played a role in our cooperation with Africans. It was always clear that our partners were interested in working together.
Request from Benin
I would like to briefly describe how I came to this topic and why we founded the association about two and a half years ago:
During a state visit with my husband four and a half years ago in the West African country of Benin, the wife of the then President, Ms. Vyiera Soglo, contacted me. She asked for a one-to-one conversation and told me about the circumcision practices in her country - not knowing that I had already been informed that it was a serious procedure in which many young girls are dying. She specifically asked me for financial and organizational support in carrying out educational work in northern Benin. Actually, she wanted us to finance the educational material in full and also to support the implementation of the educational material.
In northern Benin there was already a desire among mothers to get away from circumcision. But they
did not know how to prevail. There was a feeling of discomfort that mutilating the daughters is not a good thing and that one does not want to inflict this pain on one's own children, but there was a need for argumentative support. I promised this help.
Financial help needed
Back in Germany I first dealt with this topic in detail and only then learned the extent of these practices, which touched and shocked me. That led me to make this a kind of "commitment of my life". We then raised funds for Benin for a year and were able to raise a lot more money than expected. In the course of this time we learned that there is female genital mutilation in others too Countries, and that organizations already exist that deal with this issue and that usually do not receive any money or support to carry out their measures - even if the respective government sees it as useful.
One can easily see from the history of the anti-FGM movement that financial aid from abroad is necessary. First the Christian missionaries tried to combat these practices and were shipwrecked relatively quickly, then the colonial powers, which were also unsuccessful. In the course of the independence movement, this topic was then repeatedly exploited politically: Circumcision is part of the country's cultural identity and tradition, which is why these practices cannot be abolished. The independence movements - in opposition to the colonial rulers who wanted to abolish circumcision - have emphasized this topic again in part under the heading of self-determined identity. Later, it was mostly women from the health care sector - doctors, gynecologists, nurses - who took up the issue and tried to combat this tradition. But there was a lack of financial and political support.
So it came about that these women brought this issue to an international level in order to continue this struggle effectively with the political and material help of Western countries. In the past I have been approached several times by African women in this regard.
Interference limited to financial support
I would now like to say something briefly about our association and our way of working and come back to the subject of interference. Of course, we interfere by spending money fighting circumcision. But we do not interfere specifically, that is, we do not design any measures against female genital mutilation, we only respond to project inquiries. As already mentioned, there are non-governmental organizations and committees against traditional practices that are harmful to health that we support. The concepts come from the countries themselves; project applications are submitted, which we examine carefully. Sometimes it takes weeks and months for the application to be formulated in such a way that we can support it. We also look at the projects on site and the people behind them. Here in Germany there is also a visible accounting system.
So our work presents itself as helping people to help themselves. We try to keep our interference as low as possible because we are of the opinion that we cannot do this due to a lack of knowledge of the countries. We cannot have a say in the concepts for the awareness-raising campaigns, because we cannot get used to the foreign mentality and therefore cannot know what information has to look like in these countries in order to be effective. We assume that there are enough qualified personnel on site - and if not, they can be trained. But the initiative must come from the countries concerned themselves. We see it as our task to offer the requested help and to ensure that this money is used accordingly.
Focus activities on one country
The most difficult part of our work is not finding the money, but researching and supporting the relevant projects in African countries - which is very costly. First and foremost, we want to use the money for the work there. That is why there is now the consideration of concentrating on one country and launching a long-term awareness campaign nationwide if possible. We have developed a concept for this and are negotiating with other institutions in Germany that are supposed to participate. You have to agree on the country, contact the local government and religious leaders, and be clear that this campaign will be a long-term project.
On the subject of interference: Even if we weren't asked, interference due to human rights violations would have to be accepted. All the countries affected have signed the Human Rights Charter, thereby undertaking to combat damage to the health of girls and women. That was in the 1950s, I believe in 1956, and it is legitimate to remind them from outside - also from a different culture - to finally implement these promises.
We can demand this if we are also willing to listen to others who interfere with us from a culture that is foreign to us. I would like to refer to the book "Wüstenblume" by Waris Dirie, which describes the story of her mutilation, but also expresses the warmth in her family and then her criticism of the USA. She now lives there, and I think her criticism is too transferable to Europe: the lack of warmth in dealing with children, families who are often not intact. Waris Dirie has self-confidently criticized her country, but just as self-confidently another country. I advocate mutual interference, we have to learn to intervene not only for the well-being of the African countries, but also for our own good. We too can learn from other cultures.
© Friedrich Ebert Foundation | technical support | net edition fes-library | May 2000
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