BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Colombia is pushing ahead with a national campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) among the country’s Embera indigenous tribe, to prevent physical injury and even death that can result from the procedure, the United Nations has said.
Since the 2007 death of a newborn Embera girl from an infection after undergoing FGM, Colombian authorities and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have been working with several Embera communities in the country’s western Risaralda province to eradicate the practice.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia using anything from razor blades to scissors to broken glass. In its most extreme form, the vaginal opening is sewn closed. The procedure can cause severe bleeding, pain, shock, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility and in some cases can be fatal.
It is predominantly found in Africa, where around 3 million girls are thought to undergo FGM every year, along with parts of the Middle East and Asia.
As a result of Colombia's five-year campaign, leaders representing 25,000 Emberas living in two indigenous reserves in the Risaralda province vowed to stop FGM in their communities last year.
But despite the gains made, FGM has not been completely eradicated from the 150,000-strong Embera tribe in the country.
While there are no figures on how many girls undergo FGM every year, the practice has been reported in 16 other regions across Colombia where the Emberas live, the UNFPA said.
“We’ve started a national plan for the prevention and attention of FGM that will be extended to other Embera communities across Colombia, drawing from lessons learnt and experiences during the pilot campaign,” Esmeralda Ruiz, UNFPA’s gender and rights adviser, told reporters in Bogota earlier this week.
She said the national programme to eradicate FGM – overseen by various state entities and the UNFPA – will focus next on Emberas living in rainforest reserves along Colombia’s Pacific coast in the western province of Choco.
A HEALTH AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS ISSUE
The practice was banned among certain Embera communities in Colombia because it went from being seen as a cultural tradition passed down through generations to a health and women’s rights issue, Ruiz said.
“The starting point and basis of agreement was that culture should generate life not death. The Emberas agree that a cultural practice can’t harm its own people, and more importantly that cultures can change,” said Ruiz.
Reasons for carrying out FGM vary within the Embera tribe, UNFPA says. Some communities believe it preserves a girl's virginity and prevents promiscuity after marriage, while some girls are taught that to get married they must have undergone FGM.
“During our field work, we learnt there’s no agreement about the origin of FGM and what it means. We found many Emberas didn’t know why it was practised,” said Ruiz.
“What’s important, though, is that you can’t judge a culture and say they have savage practices. You have to understand and respect their culture. The emphasis can’t be on coercion. A culture doesn’t change by force or punishment.”
Changing social and cultural attitudes towards FGM among the Emberas was not easy. It required “years of patience, persistence and building trust”, said Ruiz.
“The community has to make a collective decision about FGM in a public assembly involving hundreds of people, including fathers, husbands, elders, women and the midwives who carry out FGM. Perhaps the hardest part is for communities to inform their own people that FGM has stopped,” said Ruiz.
GETTING WOMEN TO TALK
It was a challenge getting Embera women, who have little status within the community, to discuss the taboo issue of FGM in public, Ruiz added.
“We found women were really margainlised. They weren’t represented and didn’t have a voice. It was fundamental to get Embera women talking. Some didn’t speak Spanish or make eye contact with you at first. It was a long process,” she said.
Some Embera women who took part in workshops on the health risks of FGM paid a ‘high price’, said Ruiz.
“We did hear of some women who were beaten by their husbands after they had attended a workshop. They left their kids at home and men didn’t know how to deal with their wives' new role as activists. Men felt a loss of control,” she said.
Lorena Lozano, a journalist with the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) and member of the Pijao indigenous group, is optimistic that FGM will eventually disappear in Colombia.
“I think it’s possible to reach a day when FGM is totally eradicated in Colombia. Awareness about FGM and its risks has already been raised. That’s the first key step,” she said.
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