June 12, 2007 / 10:23 AM / 11 years ago

Eritrean custom stronger than law on cutting girls

HAGAZ, Eritrea (Reuters) - For 3-year-old Amira, a law banning female genital mutilation in Eritrea came too late.

Meriam Mohamed Omar (R) stands with her daughter, whom she circumcised, in the village of Hagaz, some 100 km (63 miles) from Asmara, in this May 7, 2007 file photograph. Wrapped in an orange traditional dress, Amira's mother, who gives her name only as Gerejet, says she circumcised the child to please her future husband. To match feature ERITREA-CIRCUMCISION/ REUTERS/Jack Kimball/Files (ERITREA)

Wrapped in an orange traditional dress, Amira’s mother, who gives her name only as Gerejet, says she circumcised the child to please her future husband.

“It was the culture that we have taken from our grandmothers, but we also do it for the pleasure of the men,” the 30-year-old told Reuters in a small village west of the Eritrean capital.

Like Gerejet and Amira, some 100 million women worldwide have been circumcised, a procedure that at its most extreme involves cutting off the clitoris and external genitalia then stitching the vagina to reduce a woman’s sexual desire.

Eritrea banned female genital mutilation FGM in April. The government has warned anyone taking part in or promoting the practice faces a fine of several hundred dollars or up to 10 years in jail.

Government officials are optimistic the law will force a change in attitudes but others worry the practice is too ingrained for legal threats to have much impact. About 90 percent of Eritrean woman have undergone the ordeal.

“FGM is a deep-rooted culture and it needs a persistent continuous effort (to halt it),” Luul Ghebreab, president of the National Union of Eritrean Women, told Reuters.

The U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says Eritrea ranks amongst the worst in the world for FGM and a survey by Eritrea’s government in 2002 found less than one percent of circumcisions were performed by trained health professionals.

Pirkko Heinonen, the UNICEF representative in Eritrea, says the practice spans Christian and Muslim communities as well as all nine of Eritrea’s ethnic groups.

“But we have come to a turning point. It was the exception not to be cut but I think in the younger age group, it is the exception to be cut,” she says.

Sitting inside her thatched-roof house, Gerejet believes Eritrean women will welcome the new law. She had circumcised her daughter because no man would marry a girl unless she was cut.

“But nothing will happen to another daughter if she is not cut,” Gerejet says in Hagaz, 100 km (62 miles) from Asmara. “We thank God the law was issued. At least the pain will stop.”

THE CIRCUMCISER

Government officials say the law banning the practice is only part of a long process of public education dating since Eritrea’s 30-year independence struggle from Ethiopia.

“Eritrea is easily manageable, there is a chain system, a village level, the sub-zone, the zonal level. We can control it,” said Tesfay Misgna, a health ministry campaigner.

Tesfay said communities have taken a lead in banning the practice: “The legal issues are very vital, because some people need them. But even some villages made their own laws before the government made it.”

“By the year 1999, it was 95 percent and then 2003, it was 89 percent. Nowadays we hope it will be less that this.”

Meriam Mohamed Omar, a former circumciser, pulls the fabric of her purple dress to mimic external genitalia and sticks a small needle through it.

“I used to use a thin stick from a palm tree. You hold the genitalia in two then cut it,” she says.

Meriam says she stopped the practice four years ago after learning of the consequences for a girl. Some 3 million girls are afflicted globally each year, according to the United Nations.

“Most of the time she suffers the pain when she is giving birth, but also during sex,” Meriam says.

The United Nations says circumcised women are up to 70 percent more vulnerable to potentially fatal bleeding after delivery. Up to 20 out of every 1,000 babies born in Africa die because their mothers were circumcised.

Aid workers say cultural traditions will be the biggest barrier to eradicating female circumcision. Across the riverbed from Hagaz in the village of Glass, residents say the practice still goes on.

“The people just say they accept (the law), but they really don’t,” one resident says. Heinonen says the new law is a milestone in the process and agrees there is still much to do.

“It is a very difficult thing to do to your family when you are one of the first ones to stop it,” she says.

“It is based on a real fear that if I do not let my daughter to be cut, is she going to be seen as a prostitute?”

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