Dakar — Parliamentarians from all over Africa are pushing for a continent-wide ban on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and are calling on the UN to pass a General Assembly resolution appealing for a global FGM/C ban, as it violates human rights, they say.
Some 17 African states have banned FGM/C, among them Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal and Uganda.
Members of parliament (MPs) from African nations met in Dakar 3-4 May to exchange lessons learned and actions to take to achieve the ban and resolution. While national human rights laws, and regional treaties such as the 2003 Africa Union Maputo Declaration refer directly or indirectly to FGM/C, separate laws must be passed to address it head-on, said delegates.
Morissanda Kouyaté, representative of the NGO Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, told delegates: "There is a lot of disparity here. Some countries have passed laws, others have none; and some have laws that are not applied."
Some governments are fully engaged and ready for change, but others, like Sierra Leone, which has high prevalence rates, will take years to shift, said Chris Baryomunsi, an MP from Kanungu in western Uganda.
Decades, not years
Ugandan MP Baryomunsi told IRIN governments should not under-estimate how long it takes to change people's minds on FGM/C: in Uganda it took two decades to get communities on board, he said.
"People have to want the law, otherwise you can't enforce it," he told IRIN.
Uganda passed a law banning FGM/C on 17 March 2010. Baryomunsi has been advocating change since 1990, in what was then a tough climate with several local authorities trying to pass laws to make FGM/C mandatory.
Over many years their views shifted and several of them switched sides to become strong advocates for a nationwide ban, he said.
"Then MPs who wanted to ban FGM/C were voted out of parliament, but now it's the reverse."
Senegal and Togo which banned FGM/C in 1999 and 1998 respectively, were some of the earliest African countries to do so. They have seen what works and what does not, and shared their lessons with others.
N'Deye Soukeye Gueye, head of the Ministry of the Family and advocate of the FGM/C ban in Senegal, told IRIN getting the head of state involved was vital to win over powerful religious leaders.
Advocacy to bring them on board continued before, during and after legislation, she stressed. "Passing the law is just the middle step in a much longer process."
Of 5,000 Senegalese villages targeted by the two national NGOs Tostan and COSEPRAT, 71 percent had abandoned the practice by 2005, according to a government evaluation.
NGOs and UN agencies are instrumental in changing people's attitudes to FGM/C, but ultimately the government has to lead the fight, agreed Baryomunsi. "Many countries leave the struggle to NGOs and UN agencies - but it is governments who sign treaties and enforce the law, and they must lead," he told IRIN.
The Ugandan government puts US$50 million a year towards implementing the ban, with the UN Population Fund and other agencies providing significant supplementary funds "to make the law bite", he said.
International legislation needed
However, no matter how strong national legislation is, if neighbouring countries do not also pass a ban, people will simply cross borders to undergo the procedure, Togo MP Christine Mensah Atoemne, told IRIN.
In Togo girls travel to Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso to undergo FGM/C, she pointed out. "We have to develop cross-border strategies to eradicate the phenomenon," she said, adding that FGM/C rates are 6 percent in central Togo and 15 percent in border areas.
In Senegal rates are highest in Podor and Matam on the Mauritania border, and Tambacounda in the west near the border with Mali, according to Gueye.
Meanwhile, in Dakar delegates put the final touches to the draft resolution they plan to push at the UN General Assembly and pass this year, as well as a list of actions for African heads of state to take to ban the practice when they meet for the African Union summit in Kampala, Uganda, in July.
"We think a GA [General Assembly] resolution will be passed," said Gueye, "There is unanimity in this room. It is ambitious but we need to think on a grand scale."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]