Landlocked Burkina Faso is home to one of the highest national poverty rates per capita in the world. In 2015, Burkina Faso was ranked 183rd out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. This extreme poverty has somewhat acted as a catalyst for the development of strong gender inequality, and has resulted in high rates of violence against women and girls. This violence materialises in various ways, including rape, forced and early marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and denial of access to monetary income or land. These acts are ingrained within the traditions, customs and cultural practices of Burkinabé society, making it extremely challenging to bring an end to such violence. Despite this, Burkina Faso is a shining example of a country that is effectively tackling the practice of FGM, with the prevalence among girls aged 15-19 dropping 31% over the past 30 years.
Background to FGM
FGM refers to “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (WHO). It is internationally recognised as one of the most brutal human rights violations in contemporary society. According to Unicef, this form of gender-based violence currently affects around 200 million women and girls worldwide, with the procedure being predominantly carried out on young girls up to the age of 15.
There are multiple long- and short-term effects on those subjected to FGM. The physical consequences can include severe pain, bleeding, various infections, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications, and at worst, death. Furthermore, FGM can result in sexual intercourse being painful, traumatic, or even impossible. In addition, the psychological consequences include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and memory loss.
Despite the extreme harm caused both physically and mentally to young women and girls, FGM remains widespread across western, eastern, and north-eastern Africa, and in some countries in Asia and the Middle East. In these regions, FGM is considered a necessary part of raising a girl, and a prerequisite for preparing her for adult life and marriage. Many communities are of the opinion that FGM will reduce a woman’s libido, and thereby prevent her from engaging in sexual activity.
FGM in Burkina Faso
In Burkina Faso, 76% of women aged 15-49 have been subjected to FGM. The practice tends to be carried out on girls under the age of 15, with over half of those who have been subjected to FGM being cut between the age of 0 and 5. The procedure usually takes place during school holidays with a higher prevalence rate occurring during the rainy season. At this time of the year, the tall-growing millet fields can conceal the procedure being carried out. The justifications for subjecting women and girls to FGM revolve around local cultural practices and norms, characterised by strong traditions and customs. FGM is carried out with the aims of preserving a woman’s virginity by limiting her sexual behaviour, and thereby making her a devoted and faithful wife. It is therefore extremely apparent that the practice of FGM is undeniably linked to and maintained by the gender inequalities that exist in Burkina Faso.
Madeleine’s* Story (Member of Kabeela)
“I was living in Guiloungou [a village around 40km from Ouagadougou] with my parents when I was cut. I was only 7 years old. They led me to an isolated house. It took place in very bad conditions, without any precautionary hygiene measures taken, and far from a health centre. They used only traditional medicines.
They had told me that [being cut] was a good thing for my future. The reasons they gave me were that it would make me a good girl, that an uncircumcised girl is more likely to stray, and her husband cannot satisfy her sexually.
I later realised that the woman who cut me had not been previously trained. It was only then that I realised that what they had done to me was unlawful in Burkina Faso.
I have now been trained to raise awareness and educate people about the real dangers of FGM. For me, the best way to fight against this practice is to raise awareness through theatre, films, talk shows and debates.”
Steps taken to eradicate FGM in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso has undoubtedly been one of the most committed countries in Africa in the fight against FGM. In 1996, Burkina Faso became the third African country to introduce a law criminalising FGM. The Penal Code of Burkina Faso provides that anyone who practices FGM shall be punishable by 6 months to three years imprisonment, and/or a fine of up to CFA francs 900,000. However, if the procedure results in death, the punishment will increase to between 5 and 10 years imprisonment. Furthermore, a person who is aware of acts of FGM taking place and fails to notify the competent authorities will be fined up to CFA francs 100,000.
In addition to this domestic law, Burkina Faso has ratified various international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which recognises FGM as a violation of human rights.
However, the success of Burkina Faso’s fight against FGM is not only due to its criminalisation of the practice, or by being a party to international instruments. Rather, it is the measures that have been taken by the Burkinabé Government to work alongside this legal framework, which have resulted in the significant drop in the prevalence rate among girls aged 15-19 from 89% in 1980, to 57% in 2010.
Burkina Faso recognised that outlawing the practice of FGM, although an essential starting point, would not be sufficient in tackling the issue. FGM is ingrained within traditional rules and values of Burkinabé society, which are often more respected than the law itself. It was clear that in order for progress to be made, any form of law enacted had to be coupled with a change in the mind-sets of the population. In light of this, the Government adopted multiple strategies to not only punish those responsible, but also to prevent the practice from taking place. For this to be effective, mechanisms had to be employed to educate Burkinabé citizens on FGM and its consequences.
In 1990, the Burkinabé Government created the CNLPE (The National Committee for the Fight against FGM), an institution to specifically coordinate all activities seeking to abandon the practice of FGM. The CNLPE set up a national hotline to allow citizens to anonymously report cases of FGM, which gives police the opportunity to prevent cuttings from taking place, as well as to arrest those responsible. Police and magistrates also play a role in patrolling villages in order to help and advise on FGM, and to investigate and prosecute any cases.
The CNLPE has made it possible to organise and conduct awareness-raising campaigns in provinces across Burkina Faso, reaching over 300 remote villages. Thousands of local volunteer activists located in hundreds of communities across the country have been trained to educate on the consequences of FGM, and to effectively convince communities to abandon the practice. The success of these campaigns is that they initially focus their attention on persons in respected positions, such as community leaders, religious leaders, police officers, teachers, and the cutters themselves. In order for entire communities to be convinced of the content of awareness-raising campaigns, those highest up need to be convinced first. This has then made it much easier for the remaining community members to be convinced of the dangers of FGM, and the reasons for which it should be abandoned.
Furthermore, radio stations, television, newspapers, theatre groups and leaflets are used to disseminate information about the law, and the dangers of the practice. This is done in local languages, making the information more accessible to communities within rural areas. Information on FGM is also included within both primary and secondary school curricula.
It is a combination of all of these measures that has resulted in the effective implementation of the law, which convicted 192 people between 2009 and 2013, sending a strong message that the practice will not be tolerated. Furthermore, the approach by the Burkinabé Government has resulted in widespread consensus across Burkina Faso for halting the practice, with 90% of women and girls, and 87% of men and boys aged between 15 and 49 who have heard about FGM think the practice should end. Furthermore, over 2,200 community leaders have committed to abandoning FGM during public ceremonies.
Some Challenges Remain
Despite the robust measures taken by Burkina Faso, and the notable reduction in the prevalence rate, there are new challenges arising in its fight against FGM. One of these is the fact that the age at which girls are being subjected to the practice is lowering. This is because young girls will be either unable, or less willing to talk about what has happened to them or to seek help, thereby making it less likely that incidences will be reported. Secondly, the countries surrounding Burkina Faso either have not criminalised FGM (Mali), or have laws that are not enforced as effectively as Burkina Faso. As such, many Burkinabé families that would like to have their daughters cut are crossing the border to another country to have this done. Both of these challenges are allowing people to evade law enforcement. Greater collaboration is needed among Governments in order to tackle this issue.
The introduction in 1996 of a law criminalising FGM in Burkina Faso was undoubtedly a huge step towards eradicating FGM. However, the impressive drop in the prevalence rate, alongside the changing attitudes of Burkinabés, both male and female, is largely down to the combination of numerous strategies engaging all members of society, with a large focus on educating on the consequences of FGM. Despite the fact that some challenges remain, Burkina Faso represents an excellent example for other countries to follow in their fight against FGM.
*Madeleine’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.
Interviews conducted by Members of Kabeela: 2014-2015
World Health Organisation, Female Genital Mutilation: Fact Sheet, available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/
UNICEF, "Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern" (2016), available at: http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGMC_2016_brochure_final_UNICEF_SPREAD...
UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on FGM/C: Accelerating Change, "Burkina Faso Has a Strong Law Against FGM/C, But Winning Hearts and Minds Remains Crucial" (2009), available at: http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/burkinafaso.pdf
Sarah Bannerman is a United Kingdom (UK) hub co-ordinator for the Kabeela Alumni Network, which supports Kabeela, a women’s association in rural Burkina Faso. Kabeela works in 85 villages across the Plateau-Central Region, with the aim of improving the social and economic situation of women. Kabeela has been taking steps to eradicate FGM by conducting peer education through the means of theatre production, in which they highlight the consequences of the practice. More information on Kabeela click here. Sarah can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to access the International Service website. Sarah worked with Kabeela as a partner of International Service ICS.
Image credit: Sarah Bannerman
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