NAIROBI (TrustLaw) – Three-quarters of girls aged fourteen and under in northern Somalia have not been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the United Nations children’s agency (Unicef) said in a survey released on Tuesday.
If sustained, this could lead to the abandonment of FGM, which previously was almost universally practised in Somalia despite the risk of death and lifelong health problems.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” Sheema Sen Gupta, chief of child protection for Unicef in Somalia, told TrustLaw.
“FGM is practiced just around puberty. It usually spikes in 10 the 14 [year-old] group and to see that it was at 25 percent, that was fantastic.”
The survey did not include southern Somalia, where the Mogadishu-based government has been battling al Shabaab, an Islamic militant group linked to al-Qaeda, but Sen Gupta is optimistic that progress can be made in reducing FGM there as well.
“The new constitution of Somalia bans FGM so that’s a good place to start at the policy level,” she said, adding that al Shabaab opposes FGM as “non-Islamic”.
The survey showed that in the semi-autonomous northern region of Somaliland, 25 percent of girls aged 0 to 14 had been circumcised compared with 99 percent of women aged 15 and above. In neighbouring Puntland, 26 percent of girls aged 0 to 14 had been circumcised compared with 98 percent of women aged 15 and above.
Unicef and partners surveyed over 9,000 households in Puntland and Somaliland in 2011 as part of the global Multiple-Indicator Cluster Survey, carried out every five years. It was the first time that households had been asked the ages of all their daughters and whether they had been circumcised.
Almost half the population of Somalia lives in the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, which declared independence in the 1990s. They are relatively stable compared with the war-torn south but they have not been recognised internationally.
Sen Gupta said FGM could be eliminated in these areas if present trends continue.
“I do think it’s possible. But what we need is sustained interventions. We have to continue and expand the work that we are doing,” she said. “If, five years later, we find that this trend is reflected in the next age group, 15 to 25 [years old], then we know that it is sustained.”
Sen Gupta pointed to the success of Egypt in banning FGM and reducing its prevalence among young girls. The government estimates that around half of Egyptian girls aged 10 to 18 are circumcised, falling to 22 percent among those whose mothers attended university.
In December, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution banning FGM, which is forced on some three million girls around the world every year.
What we found encouraging, particularly with Somaliland, is the rate of support is declining,” said Suzannah Price, Unicef Somalia’s chief of communications.
In Somaliland, only 29 percent of women said they supported FGM, down from 32 percent in 2006. In Puntland, 58 percent of women approved of it.
Somalis practice the most extreme form of FGM, called infibulation, in which all external genitalia are cut off and the vaginal opening is stitched closed.
It can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating, cysts, infections and infertility, and is a factor in the country’s high rates of death in childbirth.
Traditionally, Somalis believe FGM keeps a girl chaste, prevents promiscuity after marriage and increases male pleasure. Some say it is a religious requirement.
Unicef works with religious leaders, teaching them that FGM is not part of Islam but a practice that pre-dates it. It also brings women who have had bad experiences with FGM to talk to families.
Social acceptance is critical.
”Even when mothers are beginning to believe that this is not religious and not required, the thing that stops them from preventing it is ‘Will my daughter be marriageable or not?’” said Sen Gupta.
“They would first simply say to you: ‘Find me a boy who will marry a girl who is not cut.’”
Unicef encourages communities to publicly renounce FGM. In 2012, 28 villages in Somaliland did this.
“They have actually declared abandonment, which means that no new kids will be cut,” said Sen Gupta, while acknowledging that monitoring this pledge will be a challenge.
The governments of both Somaliland and Puntland have drafted bills outlawing FGM.