- The harmful practice of fanado, or female genital mutilation (FGM), could soon be outlawed by a new bill to be presented to the Guinea-Bissau parliament by government. The bill foresees penalties and prison sentences for practicing FGM, if it can pass through parliament on its second attempt.
Fanado is a traditional initiation ceremony for young girls, in which the vagina's clitoris and lips are removed. Many of the country's 30 ethnic groups practice it, including all the Muslim communities, about 46 percent of the population, especially in the eastern regions of Gabu and Bafatá.
The girls' bodies are painted with rice flour or talc powder, and animist girls, attracted by the ceremonies, sometimes go to be circumcised with their Muslim girlfriends. Unicef estimates that some 2,000 girls are subjected to the procedure annually, and that 250,000 to 500,000 women suffer its medical and psychological consequences.
The trade of cutting is handed down in families, and daughters proudly use their mothers' knives, already blunted by age. Given the unhygienic conditions and ignorance amongst the practitioners, there is a high risk of HIV transmission, as the same knife is often used in several operations.
Legislation providing penalties and prison sentences for practicing fanado, drafted in 2001 by the Institute for Women and Children (IMC, from its Portuguese acronym) in partnership with human rights organisations, is now being re-presented to parliament.
"Without wanting to offend the religion or the culture of one or another ethnic group, we have to involve all social and political players," said Adelina Na Temba, Minister of Social Solidarity, Family and the Fight Against Poverty.
Ms Na Tamba told the UN media 'PlusNews' that the new bill would be tabled in parliament during the next sitting, and the country could soon follow in the footsteps of 16 African countries that have approved laws against female genital mutilation (FGM).
The Maputo Protocol, an African Union (AU) document condemning the practice, came into force in November 2005. AU chairman Alpha Oumar Konaré, ex-President of Mali, where FGM is almost universal, stated in June on African Child International Day that it violated human rights and the dignity of girls and women. FGM is common in 28 African countries, in some in the Middle East, and amongst the immigrant communities of these countries living abroad.
The fight against fanado in Guinea-Bissau is an uphill one. Despite a barrage of criticism from traditional groups, a local non-governmental organisation, Sinin Mira Nassique ("Think of tomorrow", in the Mandinga language), has been leading the campaign against the practice. But the recent death of its chairwoman, Maria Augusta Mendonça Baldé, has weakened the campaign.
Parliament's inactivity has not helped either. After the 1998/99 civil war, the legislative body was temporarily dissolved in 2002, and was then interrupted after a coup d'état in 2003 until the new government took office in October 2005. Politicians and legislators are also reluctant to offend voters who consider FGM an important element of their culture.
To overcome cultural issues, Sinin Mira Nassique has adopted a strategy of promoting a symbolic fanado, with all the social and traditional features of the original, but without the cutting. Such "alternative rites" have had some success in various countries, as they still retain the initiation characteristics of the ceremony, ensure cultural continuity and keep practitioners employed.
After conducting awareness sessions, the group was able to perform five alternative fanados in the regions of Bissau, Gabu and Oio. More than a hundred practitioners from these areas have laid down their knives, hoping to organise other income-generating activities, but because these never materialised, they resist completely abandoning the practice because they would lose their source of income, said the IMC President.
Between Franc CFA 5,000 and 7,500 (US$ 10-15) is charged per child, and if it includes cutting the practitioner receives soap, chickens, rice and other goods.
Forty years of Fanado
Bula Baldé has been practising fanado for 40 years in Bafatá. Now in her 80s, she was taught by her grandmother and mother, both from Futa Djalon, in Guinea-Conakry. She still keeps her mother's 4cm-long knife, but uses a newer one. She grows maize and cassava in her backyard, but said she would only stop circumcising girls if "the knife could be exchanged for an income".
The purpose of fanado is to control female sexuality. Ms Baldé told 'PlusNews' some families are afraid of finding out their daughter is not a virgin on her wedding day and resort to a severe form called infibulation, which prevents any sexual relationships. To reopen the vagina on the day of her marriage, they call a practitioner. The family offers the daughter gold jewellery or a knife as a reward for her suffering.
During the Muslim month of Ramadan, when people fast from dawn to sunset, Muslim men do not accept food from an uncircumcised Muslim woman and she will not be allowed to pray in a mosque. This was why women from non-Muslim ethnic groups who marry Muslim men are forced to undergo female genital mutilation, said Ms Baldé.
FGM is prohibited in the neighbouring countries of Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Burkina Faso and Niger, and at least in Senegal, government actively tries to stop the harmful practice. But practitioners and Senegalese girls often cross the border to perform the ceremony in Guinea-Bissau, where it is not a crime.
Minister Na Tamba points out that Guinea-Bissau has signed international conventions on women and children's rights, and maintains that her government cannot allow practices that offend against these rights.
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