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Senegalese Parliamentarians mobilised against female genital mutilation: Dr Omar Ndoye interview

11 October 2013

Dr Omar Ndoye

Dr Omar Ndoye

Dr. Omar Ndoye works with the programme “Female Genital Mutilation: Accelerating Change,” that the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA), in partnership with UNFPA and UNICEF, develops in Senegal since early 2012. In addition, he is a former member of the National Assembly and former President of the Committee on Health, Population, Social Affairs and National Solidarity. He is now a lecturer at the Institute for Research and Education of psychopathology (Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal). He consults with the Department of Psychiatry of the Fann Hospital.

To mark the United Nations “International Day of the Girl” to recognise the rights of girls and obstacles they face in the world, AWEPA took the opportunity to reflect specifically on female genital mutilation or female circumcision (FGM/C) as practised today in Senegal, and the role of Parliament for the abandonment of the practice. In an interview with AWEPA, Dr Ndoye shared his thoughts about our Senegal programme: For the last two years, AWEPA and its partners have been addressing this issue through the multilateral programme “Female Genital Mutilation: Accelerating Change”. Building on the achievements of the programme in Burkina Faso, in late 2012 AWEPA started this programme in Senegal in partnership with the National Assembly, UNFPA and UNICEF.

Here is an excerpt of the interview that was conducted in French:

1 . Can you tell us about the 99/ 05 law? Since when does it exist?

This law aims to ban the practice of female genital mutilation and all forms of violence that affect the physical integrity of women and girls in Senegal. It is a kind of protection for girls, so they can develop normally without having a part of their body cut. The 99/05 law was passed through the effective mobilisation of the collective of women parliamentarians that existed at the time, associations of women lawyers, as well as local NGOs involved in the cause of the abandonment of FGM. I should point out that, in Senegal, for each legislature, a body of women parliamentarians addresses the human rights abuses of women and girls. In the past, these collectives have mainly dealt with the issue of gender equality.
In 1999, some male parliamentarians opposed this law. At the time, a significant portion of the population thought that (foreign) donors and international partners had imposed this law. And today, even if it is effective, it has not really changed the perspective of the people. Despite the considerable means at their disposal, awareness campaigns implemented immediately after have not resulted in a big difference. The law is not currently enforced. It was applied only once, and created too much discontent. A magistrate in charge of the affairs at the Ministry of Justice related this story at the seminar organised by AWEPA in March this year in Dakar. He said that one of his colleagues had enforced the law in a region of northern Senegal by jailing a person who conducted excision. This resulted in a mass of people praying and exerting social pressure to revise the sentence. The judge fell ill and the practitioner was released from prison. Today, according to our colleague, the magistrate is still prostrate in bed. So no other judge has (dared) sentence anyone. And the state cannot actually enforce this law.

2. Is there a national strategy against FGM/C? What is it? Who is involved? What is the role of parliamentarians in this strategy?
Between 2000 and 2005 there was a five-year action plan. This plan was established in consensus with several social actors and stakeholders. One result was the demographic study in 2005, which showed that 28 percent of the female population aged 15 to 49 was excised in Senegal. Today there is a second national plan for 2010-2015. It is a State plan that is in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and that aims the total abandonment of female genital cutting in Senegal by 2015. There are what is called “regional committees” for the abandonment of FGM. At the departmental level, there are departmental committees. There are also committees in rural communities. This plan is essentially an opportunity to protect girls.
The downside of this strategy was that parliamentarians were not initially involved; parliamentary involvement came through AWEPA. Since the beginning of this year, parliamentarians and AWEPA began to reflect jointly on this issue. In the beginning, the parliamentarians placed a lot more emphasis on the problem of rape, because Senegal experienced a very sharp increase in rape. We did not focus on female circumcision. Now that a new term has just begun, the group of women parliamentarians has chosen to work on FGM/C, and now that organisations such as AWEPA, UNFPA and UNICEF are committed, we can say without a doubt that there is a new impetus towards the abandonment of FGM.

3 . Who are the partners in this campaign?
It is important that elected officials who represent the people are close to the people, can grasp the issue of circumcision and talk about it. If people see a citizen of the same neighborhood, community, or department who was elected to represent them at the National Assembly, return to their place of origin to talk about the subject, it will be taken seriously. I think it more effective than most of the outreach organised by Western organisations in rural areas. Someone said at the seminar, “they arrive in the villages with their 4x4s and some Senegalese women to gather and talk about circumcision. Maybe in their presence, women report wanting to publicly abandon the practice. But as soon as the dust from their cars settles, the excision resumes.” Three thousand villages in Senegal reported having abandoned excision according to those organizations. Unfortunately, this number is not very realistic.
The approach taken by AWEPA is original and holistic insofar as it does not only involve parliamentarians, but religious leaders (including Imams), NGOs, associations of lawyers, women’s groups and the youth, and the state network of regional, departmental and community committees.
As I mentioned, so far neither parliamentary nor state actors were involved in the national strategy to fight against FGM. This is why, during the seminar organised by AWEPA last August, the two presidents who attended the Regional Commissions expressed great satisfaction. It was the first time they really got involved despite the fact that these two presidents came from two regions with highest prevalence of FGM: Matam and Sédhiou.

4. What are the biggest challenges you faced in the context of this campaign? What is the best way to respond?

The first challenge we encountered was the mobilization of parliamentarians, finding ways to arouse their interest in this case. We are making progress. When AWEPA organised a first seminar in March 2013, certain participants commented « oh, here’s one more seminar ». And indeed some of the invited were absent.

Still, it is a fact that the seminar became successful as regards the sensitivisation of elected officials and the complexity of the debate. We illustrated the medical argument, showing the effects and overall disruption that a young female experiences when circumcised later in life:  physical, psychological and social disturbance.

As a result, parliamentarians who had been circumcised in their childhood testified. Their testimony, moving and powerful, shook participants and encouraged a rich and complex debate. One parliamentarian provided a different perspective when she declared that she would never be able to imprison her own grandmother who was a practitioner of circumcision. The debates began to relieve ambivalence, reflecting the cultural nature of this practice.

There was palpable contradiction, especially when someone spoke, proclaiming that when a girl is not circumcised, she is not considered a woman – she is deemed insignificant. She cannot find a husband.  In view of this discrimination, many women are contrary to the abandonment of FGM.

At these seminars, members expressed the need to try to do something meaningful during this legislature. It has been fourteen years since the law was passed and yet we find it hard to apply.  We should identify what is wrong, find solutions and continue to involve parliamentarians. It is remarkable that the members of the Commission of Health, Population and Social Affairs have managed to interest other members who are not members of the Commission, but who are residents from areas of high prevalence of FGM.

5. Is it together with these parliamentarians that you planned to go on site?

Yes. In addition to the debates we must also go into the field. As we mentioned, the biggest challenge is the traditional cultural barrier. I remember planning a field visit with parliamentarians to a village but being denied access by inhabitants because they refused discussing about female genital mutilations. It is a custom that they will not give up because they have inherited it from their ancestors. Yet the wise Amadou Hampâté Bâ said that « even our ancestors, if they could return to life, would find [those practices] outdated and obsolete».

I still believe that we should not give up. One of the challenges is to have access to traditional cutters. While we do not address these women or those who have direct access to them, we will not progress. More information and sensitization are needed, as well as strengthening the knowledge of traditional cutters. But, above all, there is a need to involve every stakeholder in communities where FGM is practiced.

With AWEPA we are currently organizing teams of members who will travel in certain regions where the practice is more ingrained into local society. Once there, they will work with representatives of regional and departmental Committees and with the largest number of stakeholders. They will seek “pockets of cultural resistance” in order to better guide the route of the parliamentary delegation that will visit the places fortiori. They will establish contacts while maintaining the discretion and respect required.

AWEPA has prepared a monitoring and evaluation guide that will allow us to maintain consistency in our work areas; it will also allow us to assess what has been accomplished. This tool enables us to return to the scene a few months later and make an assessment of the results.

6. What is your role in this campaign? How does this question  touch you personally?

The issue of FGM truly touches me due to my experience. I have been a teacher, and I managed social centers in Senegal and Europe. I have always been working with kids. At one point, when I lived in Paris, I participated in a meeting on FGM in which a film entitled « Tu ne couperas point » (You shall not cut) was screened.  Thus began my education in relation to these issues. As soon as I was elected in the National Assembly, I created and implemented a network, PEVA, which also continues to work as part of the new Parliament in Senegal. This is a network for the protection of children against abuse and violence.

Now I’m no longer a parliamentarian, but AWEPA and the President of the Health Commission, the Honourable Alpha Balde, gave me the opportunity to continue this fight for children rights. They put my feet in the stirrup.  I also currently participate in the implementation of a plan to eliminate FGM in Senegal and across the sub-region. Some people believe that it is useless to eradicate FGM in Senegal if it’s not eradicated in neighboring countries, as people will simply cross the border to carry out the practice. Our goal for 2014 is to set up an African Parliamentary Alliance against FGM. This is my fight today.