11/12/2004

Female Genital Mutilation Lives on in Djibouti

DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - 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, 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."

MEDICAL DANGERS

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.

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