Late one evening on a stony hill above Djibouti’s northern town of Tadjourah, an old Afar woman is squatting comfortably on a thin mat, tiny limbs wrapped tidily up around her. A reputed practitioner of female circumcision, the woman answers questions in a croaking voice about a custom reviled by human rights campaigners as an atrocity against womankind.
Perhaps understandably, she declines to give permission for her name to be published. At one point the old woman falls silent. Then, in a tone suddenly laden with suspicion, she asks her foreign visitor: “Do you want to ban circumcision?”
Despite attempts to stop it, circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM), remains the norm in Djibouti, a tiny country in northeast Africa (Muslim 94%, Christian 6%), as it does in many communities across the East and West of the continent.
In Djibouti the practice is illegal, but its proponents continue the “cut” and arguments against it have failed to wipe it out.
FGM takes different forms but the most severe, infibulation, prevalent in Djibouti, involves cutting away the inner labia and clitoris then tying the remaining lips together, leaving a tiny hole for urine and menstrual blood.
Abdu Mohmed, a native of Tadjourah now living in the capital Djibouti town, still remembers his sister’s screams, and her subsequent dread of blood and knives.
“How many women have been destroyed (by FGM)?” he asks.
A 2002 survey of 1,000 women giving birth at Djibouti’s Peltier Hospital concluded that 98 percent of women had been circumcised, of whom the vast majority had been infibulated.
In rural areas an even higher rate of infibulation is likely, says Miriam Martinelli, an Italian nurse and research student with more than 10 years of regional experience.
Nobody can say for sure whether the rates have reduced in recent years, because the women giving birth were circumcised several years ago.
Tradition remains strong in Tadjourah, where nomads lead camels with their loads of arid firewood along dusty seaside streets, and small classes of children learn Koranic texts in narrow back streets, sitting on large, upturned tins of powdered milk, boys on one side, girls on the other. But the taboo is slowly being broken.
“At least, now, we can talk about it. It was not like this 10 years ago, and it is not like this in Somalia, for example. So this is a change,” said Martinelli.
“The second thing is quite a lot of people among well-educated people and quite high-level people say: ‘I don’t want to mutilate my daughters, but….’ meaning ‘there is such a strong pressure on me, my women, and my family that most probably I will again’. Maybe the next generation will say: ‘I don’t want to, and I won’t.”‘
Attempts to force a solution take time to have an effect. Illiteracy in Djibouti is high, and loyalty to the group generally exceeds trust in meddlesome outsiders. Article 333 of Djibouti’s Penal Code, for example, outlaws the practice but few people have ever been arrested. And in August, a German aid group supported a workshop in Tadjourah to disprove FGM’s alleged links with Islam.
But less than two months later in Tadjourah — confusion exists: does Islam forbid, tolerate, recommend or even oblige the different forms of circumcision?
According to the U.N., the medical result of FGM can include pain, trauma, hemorrhage, infection, fracture or dislocation of the hip joint while the struggling girl is held, difficulties with urination and menstruation, infertility and abscesses. And U.N. experts now worry that since FGM causes blood to be present in almost every sexual encounter, the speed of HIV (news – web sites) transmission could dramatically increase. According to a 2002 study, Djibouti’s estimated HIV prevalence is still low, by African standards, at 2.9 percent. But together with high fertility, malnutrition, and poor emergency care, FGM is a contributor to Djibouti’s high levels of maternal mortality, since hemorrhaging at birth is frequent.
Circumcision significantly reduces female sexual pleasure, and, with almost total closure of the vagina, sex becomes more difficult. Defibulation, or opening of the vagina, is done as a medical procedure, with intercourse or, some say, with a knife. Non-circumcision may seriously reduce the chances of marriage. Family and social pressures to circumcise are enormous.
“The (typical) grandmother says: “if she is not excised (circumcised), she will become a prostitute. She cannot stay in the house,” explains Aicha Youssouf, a midwife in Tadjourah. “If she is not (circumcised), she (the Djibouti woman) has a complex, because she believes herself to be different from others…She will think that the man will reject her.”
“Everybody will tell you it is not good,” said Abdu Mohmed, a native of Tadjourah now living in Djibouti town and frustrated by the slow pace of change, “but nobody is changing the rules.”