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MILLIONS OF WOMEN still undergo female genital mutilation – an operation performed on young girls in preparation for womanhood and marriage which can lead to disability and even death. This month we bring you two special features on how communities in Africa are bringing about change.

At the cutting edge
Swift turnaround in Uganda

Signs of the times - young girls in front of an anti-circumcision poster in Burkina Faso.

Kapchorwa is a tiny town in the remote mountains of eastern Uganda, home to the Sabiny people. Isolated by geography, poverty and a lack of industry, they are fiercely protective of their culture. Left to their own way of life for centuries, they are the only people in Uganda to circumcise their women.

But today there is radical change in Kapchorwa. Not only have Sabiny girls chosen to reject the practice, but their right to choose has been sanctioned by the custodians of culture and tradition, the Clan Elders.

This astonishing and swift turnaround is due to a program known as REACH, Reproductive, Educative and Community Health. The success of the program has been mainly due to its approach which is, above all, respectful and non-judgemental. It encourages the Sabiny people to be proud of their culture while questioning the legitimacy of some of its practices. It accepts that a ritual which marks a girl’s passage into womanhood is culturally valid and should be enhanced – with celebrating, dancing, singing and even gifts to symbolize the coming of age. What it rejects is the practice of circumcision itself which serves no purpose.

But what of the girls themselves? Even those who dread the pain and health complications can still be intimidated by a tradition which asserts they are not women till they are cut. To remain a girl means having no status within the community and ruined marriage prospects. But now REACH arms teenage girls with significant facts about the dangers of female circumcision. I watched Judith, a 17-year-old, persuade her class- mates that arguments for circumcision were just ‘harassment’.

Signs of the times - dsiplaying a fake 'blood-cevered' knife in an alternative ritual in Kapchorwa.

They argued vigorously – one girl said her grandmother told her she would curdle the milk of any cow she touched were she not cut. Another said she would not go to heaven. In response, two sisters, 17 and 18 years old respectively, passionately insisted that they would become women when their education was complete. In their eyes, genital cutting had nothing to do with achieving maturity.

As for the women who had already been circumcised, I wondered what their feelings would be, watching their younger sisters and daughters avoid their grim fate. Surprisingly I came across little bitterness, mainly a desire for other girls not to endure what had been forced upon them.

Stop Press: A recent visit for a follow-up film found that change is slow, but it is happening. Out of 850 girls who would normally have been circumcised, 320 were not.

Charlotte Metcalf

Charlotte Metcalf’s films The Cutting Edge and Welcome to Womanhood are available in English, French and Spanish. Contact TVE Distribution, Prince Albert Road, London NW1 4RZ, England.


Secrets can't last forever
A new approach to female circumcision

Aja Tounkara Diallo Fatimata circumcises thousands of young girls every year in Conakry, Guinea. The practice, she admits, causes untold health problems for millions of African women, particularly when they give birth.

So why does she do it? She doesn’t.

Rather than cut, Tounkara, who began her career as a gynaecologist, just pinches the girls – enough to make them cry out. Then she pours mercurochrome, a bright red antiseptic that looks like blood, onto their genitals, and wraps a bandage so tight that they ‘walk funny and look like they are in pain’.

Tounkara has practised what she calls her ‘simulacrum’ since 1969, when she saw a girl nearly bleed to death. She began trying, in her capacity as a midwife, to convince parents not to circumcise their new born daughters. ‘When they invariably said that their relatives were going to do it anyway, I would suggest the simulacrum. We would take lots of photos,’ she said. Tounkara has taught her trick to midwives and traditional circumcisionists ever since. But ‘secrets can’t last forever’, she says and to the dismay of many she has gone public.

‘Some accuse Tounkara of compromising the movement,’ says Marie Helen Mottin Sylla, head of the Senegalese-based Synergy in Gender and Development group. ‘But they are usually the ones removed from the reality of the situation... sometimes the not-to-do-it-and-not-tell-it approach is the best that is possible.’

Many Africans campaigning against female circumcision think Western activists’ misconceptions about the practice might be harming their cause. One is that sexual pleasure is not possible when the clitoris is removed. ‘When Western women stand up and tell circumcised women that we cannot experience sexual pleasure they are laughed out of the room.’ Westerners also often believe only Muslims perform female circumcision. In fact Christians, Animists, even African Jews practise it, she claims.

Female circumcision is an African problem that needs an African solution. ‘Change comes carefully by addressing people’s motivations. With female circumcision, these may be tradition, religion, hygiene, notions of beauty or notions of what an African woman should be,’ said Mottin Sylla. Tounkara points out that she has waited 16 years before going public. During this time thousands of Guinean women have been tricked. ‘Now they can see that contrary to local belief, they have not grown penises, and their husbands are happy sleeping with them.’ Tounkara still performs the simulacrum, but claims she is no longer tricking people. ‘Now they are just tricking themselves.’

David Hecht

How much does a groom cost in 1997?

How much does a groom cost in 1997?
The price of a suitable boy has skyrocketed in India. Gone are the days when even highly qualified grooms settled for a Vespa scooter as dowry – now only an Opal Astra or Peugeot will do. VS Suresh, a public relations officer in Bangalore, insists that dowry rates vary according to the profession of the groom. ‘An engineer is worth Rs 5 lakh ($14,000) in cash, a car, a site, 50 to 100 gold sovereigns along with marriage expenses,’ he says. ‘A doctor is worth Rs 10 lakh ($28,000) to 15 lakh ($42,000) in cash, a car, all household goods, a paid honeymoon trip abroad, a site and financial help to start his own clinic.’ ‘A software engineer is worth Rs 30 lakh ($84,000) minimum,’ says R Vidya, a young housewife. Journalists and artists are right at the bottom of the barrel, for parents dislike putting their money on presumed losers.

The Asian Age on Sunday, New Delhi, India

Porn viewers hit by cyberscam
Internet surfers downloading pornography from a Website from a computer in Moldova have fallen victim to one of the most innovative cyberscams yet uncovered.

The site promises surfers free pictures once they have downloaded an ‘image viewer’ program. But unknown to them, the program disconnects their modem from their local internet service provider, and dials Moldova direct. Even when they leave the Website, their surfing continues to be routed via the Moldovan computer.

The scam was uncovered by the telephone company Bell Canada, which noticed some of its customers had racked up charges of more than $750 on a single call by staying on-line for six hours.

New Scientist, No 2068

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POLYP - Big Bad World POLYP cartoon POLYP cartoon POLYP cartoon [image, unknown]

Cycles of violence
Caught in the Sri Lankan civil war

A waiting game - these Sri Lankan returnees are unlikely to face a welcome party when they arrive home.

In September 1996, Krishanthy Kumarasamy, an 18-year-old Tamil student, was gang-raped and murdered by soldiers in the town of Jaffna. When her mother, brother and a neighbour asked the guards at a nearby sentry point where she was, they were also killed.

For almost 15 years, Sri Lanka has been ravaged by a civil war waged between the predominantly Sinhalese Government and the increasingly militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Despite international attempts to broker a peace deal there are few signs of a ceasefire. 1997 has seen renewed military conflicts, with civilians bearing the brunt of the suffering, says a new report from the UK-based Refugee Council, Protection Denied.

According to Tamil MP Joseph Pararaja-singham, extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances are increasing. These abuses are not confined to the Sri Lankan army. Amnesty International has found ‘evidence in LTTE-controlled areas of grave human-rights abuses, including deliberate arbitrary killings of Sinhalese citizens, summary executions of Tamil people considered to be traitors, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and children coerced or forced to join the armed group’.

Almost 10 per cent of the population, or more than 1.5 million people, have been displaced by the fighting. When Government troops attacked the LTTE-held town of Kilinochchi in September 1996, 350,000 people fled for their lives. According to conflict analysts: ‘At the time it was the most intense fighting in the world, equal to the Tet offensive during the Vietnam war.’ The US Committee for Refugees says ‘many of the refugees have been displaced not once, but three or four times’.

In the Government army-run refugee camps, allegations of torture and disappearances are rampant. A Colombo-based human-rights lawyer claims that seven people have been killed at Thandikulam camp under torture. He listed the torture methods used in the camp, including filling a shopping bag with petrol and pulling it over the suspect’s head, shoving bottles into vaginas, chillies into rectums, and hanging suspects upside down until they confess. The lawyer added that: ‘Any young fellow who is arrested will be tortured.’

Refugees who manage to escape Sri Lanka have found Western nations increasingly reluctant to grant them asylum. According to the UK-based Refugee Council, between 1991 and 1993, 95 per cent of all Sri Lankan applications for asylum in the UK were accepted. Between 1994 and 1996, despite the worsening situation in Sri Lanka, 94 per cent of all applicants were refused.

Sara Chamberlain

From reef to dockyard
The Mexican island of San Miguel De Cozumel, which lies off the Yucatan peninsula, is up in arms against a proposed 550-metre pier for cruise liners near its famous Paradise Reef. Angry Cozumel Greens have lodged an official complaint with the North American Free Trade Agreement's Commission for Environmental Co-operation.

They have accused the Mexican Government of side-stepping its own laws which require that extensive environmental studies be carried out before any new development project is initiated.

Down to Earth, Vol. 4, No 22

Teargas used on Indian protesters against US-owned power plant
A thousand peaceful protesters were recently arrested at the site of the American-owned Enron power plant project in Maharashtra, India. Teargas and lathi-charges were used to disperse the demonstrators, who are opposed to the US company's ownership of the plant and think that local people will not benefit from the potentially polluting project. They are demanding the resignation of the Government and an apology for misrepresenting the facts about the project to the people of Maharashtra. According to the National Alliance of People's Movements, at least 100 people were injured in the protest.

The Hindu, India

Love in Hiding
Mahmud Kianush, the editor of a new anthology of twentieth-century Persian poetry, writes that Iranian literature has been politicized in reaction to 'prolonged dictatorial rule, blind suppression and absurd censorship in Iran'. This censorship, Kianush states, has had the indirect effect of stimulating some brilliant political poems. A recent poem by Ahmed Shamlu is a fine example:

They smell your mouth
To find out if you have told someone
I love you!
They smell your heart!
Such a strange time it is, my dear;
And they punish Love
At thoroughfares
By flogging
We must hide our love in dark closets...

Middle East International No 544

Meat Mountain
The corpses of 230,000 cattle slaughtered to eradicate BSE in Britain are currently in cold storage at a cost of $1.6 million a month. The cattle were supposed to be incinerated in power stations. But the Government-backed plan faces growing opposition from staff at power stations because of a lack of clear medical advice on the risks. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB union said: ‘The Government can just forget it.

If BSE residues are brought into the main part of any power station, our advice to our members will be to leave the power station immediately. I can’t make myself any plainer than that.’

The Observer, 23 Feb 1997


‘We don’t want to demonize him.
He is a demon and he’s done it to himself.’

Nick Burns, US State Department spokesperson, on Saddam Hussein.

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