Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a traditional harmful practice that involves partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is mainly practiced in 29 African countries.(2) Estimates indicate that every year in Africa three million girls are at risk of FGM, while about 92 million girls aged 10 or above have undergone FGM.(3)
FGM/C Prevalence at National Level (4)
Though cultural and social norms underpin FGM and help to perpetuate it, this practice is now widely recognised as a violation of girls and women’s human rights. Burkina Faso has long adopted this view in fighting FGM nationally. Its 20-year long engagement allowed Burkina Faso to play a leading role at continent and international level to promote concerted efforts for ending FGM.
By presenting Burkina Faso’s case, this discussion paper analyses how FGM, though being well-rooted in practising African countries and cultures, can be eradicated through a constant engagement that finds its motivation in the protection of women and girls’ fundamental human rights.
International legal framework
FGM has no health benefits, since it removes and damages healthy and normal female genital tissue.(5) On the contrary, it causes a wealth of negative consequences, mostly for the health of cut girls and women. FGM results, most frequently, in immediate severe pain, and may lead to critical bleeding and haemorrhage, bacterial infections, urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury in the nearby genital tissue. In the long term, FGM can cause recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, and infertility.(6) It increases the likelihood of childbirth complications and new born deaths, and it may require, in the case of infibulation (the most extreme form of FGM),(7) later surgeries for sexual intercourse and childbirth. FGM also has psychologically detrimental effects, as it may cause trauma and shock due to the violence with which this practice can be performed.(8) In addition, this practice is often imposed on girls as young as five and may be the result of social pressure.
The damages provoked by FGM and the lack of choice to undergo such a harmful practice led to the uncontroverted recognition, at the international level, of FGM as a violation of girls and women’s fundamental human rights. More specifically, FGM violates the human right principle of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, the right to life when the procedure results in death, the right to physical integrity, the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to the highest attainable standards of health. Finally, even when FGM is justified as a practice required by religion, international law stipulates that fundamental human rights and freedoms shall not be subjected to religion or beliefs.(9)
The rights that FGM violates are included in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Furthermore, several African treaties have set standards to protect from FGM, namely the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and its Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
On 20 December 2012, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved the resolution Intensifying Global Efforts for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilations.(10) Countries and international and local actors can lever on this document to put an end to FGM. Burkina Faso was among the African countries that solicited the African Union to approve a continent-wide ban of FGM, and the promoter of the UN resolution on FGM itself.
FGM in Burkina Faso: Facts, figures, and reasons
Burkina Faso is one of the African countries where infibulation is practised,(11) though excision is by far the most widespread.(12) The 2010 Demographic and Health Survey,(13) conducted by the Burkina Faso Government and supported by various international organisations,(14) provides the most up to date figures of FGM prevalence and forms in Burkina Faso. A sample of 15,000 men and women was considered to conduct the survey throughout the country. Seventy-six percent of female respondents admitted having undergone FGM, yet with a difference in generations: 89% of 45-49-year-old women as compared to 58% of 15-19-year-old girls underwent FGM.(15) This may be considered a signal that FGM is steadily decreasing.
Prevalence of FGM among Burkinabé women is influenced by settings of residence, ethnicity, religion, and education. FGM is more frequent in rural than in urban contexts, with a degree of prevalence of 78% and 69% respectively.(16) Only women belonging to the Touareg/Bella ethnic group have been relatively less subjected to FGM (22%), while all other ethnic groups in Burkina Faso have much higher rates of FGM, ranging from 70% to 80%.(17) Although no religion requires in its dogmas to practice FGM, Muslim women are more likely to be cut (81%). Nevertheless, also a significant percentage of Catholic and Protestant women (60%) have been subjected to FGM.(18) Interestingly, the great majority of men and women in Burkina Faso do not think that FGM is a practice required by religion.(19) Finally, as shown by statistics, less educated women are more likely to have their daughters cut.(20) Burkinabé girls undergo FGM very early. It is reported that in 60% of cases, FGM is practised before a girl child’s fifth birthday.(21) FGM is mainly performed by traditional circumcisers,(22) with all the health consequences that using non-sterile devices in dirty places, with no medical training, may bring about.
While the above gives a picture of FGM prevalence in Burkina Faso and suggests that the practice is slowly declining, it is important to understand some of the reasons why FGM is still performed in the country. Culturally, FGM confers a proper social standing,(23) whereby girls are deemed to be pure and ready to become faithful and dignified wives. As a matter of fact, promoters of FGM think that this practice helps preserve the chastity and virginity of young girls before marriage, controls women’s sexuality, ensures wives’ fidelity, prevents promiscuity, and avoids girls’ waywardness.(24) Informed by both social and cultural practices, it is believed that FGM, in terms of health, helps improve and maintain personal hygiene (like in male circumcision).(25) Sexually, and still using a discourse of health, some people in Burkina Faso see the clitoris as an organ that increases the masculinity of women which causes harm to the foetus during pregnancy; hence it has to been removed.(26) Finally, social pressure, and the need to comply with what the majority thinks is correct, influences the perpetuation of this practice. As one advocacy worker put it, “if you live in a community where all the women are cut, you have no means of comparison. You won’t listen to people telling you the contrary of what everyone believes.”(27)
Burkina Faso’s official fight against FGM
As mentioned, Burkina Faso has engaged to put an end to FGM for more than 20 years. The country is not only a signatory of all relevant international and regional human rights treaties for the protection against FGM, but has also ratified all of them.(28) In 1991, Burkina Faso amended its National Constitution to adopt the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and set the equality between individuals without any kind of discrimination.(29) Moreover, Burkina Faso was one of the precursors worldwide in approving a national legislation against FGM in 1996, which even today is considered one of the toughest in the whole African continent.(30) According to the law, both circumcisers and accomplices (mostly, the parents of cut girls) can be convicted up to three years of imprisonment and fined up to 900,000 CFA (slightly more than US$ 10,000). Recently, with the support of the UN, Burkina Faso has developed a National Action Plan for the Promotion of the Elimination of FGM in the Framework of a Zero Tolerance Policy (2010-2015) which strives to put an end to FGM by 2015.(31)
Besides the efforts in the legislative and law enforcement sectors, Burkina Faso undertook various initiatives throughout the years to fight against the practice of FGM. In 1990, the Government created the National Committee for the Campaign against Excision (CNLPE), which established the national hotline against FGM and supported a nation-wide campaign of awareness-raising on FGM.(32) In 1990, the Green Phone: SOS Excision was set up. This hotline can be used to denounce people who performed FGM (the circumcisers) or that forced their girl children to undergo it (mostly the parents), or to call for the intervention of authorities when FGM is about to be performed. Records indicate that most frequently it is women, educated individuals and young people to call in.(33) In parallel, the CNLPE promoted a comprehensive campaign to stop FGM. Activities ranged from conveying messages on FGM through the media to providing medical support to FGM victims and mobile security teams to increase awareness and enforce the law.(34) Social workers, people of the local radio and gendarmes have been travelling from village to village to raise awareness.(35) Interestingly, these awareness-raising sessions led to the conclusion that the most effective lever to be used with communities for ending FGM is reproductive health, and not human rights.(36) FGM and its tendency to cause problems during childbirth is easier to relate to and understand than the fact that cutting can lead to unwanted consequences and is a breach of fundamental human rights. This illustrates the importance of understanding contextual factors and the interests of people concerned (as opposed to enforcing ideas and concepts from the ‘outside’); a lesson that should be remembered in any grassroots awareness-raising activity.
Thanks to the tough national law against FGM, the awareness-raising campaign and the hotline, along with other factors that do not find space here for discussion,(37) numbers of FGM in Burkina Faso seem to have decreased. Younger girls are less likely to be victims of FGM, and the majority of women and men alike, have come to think that FGM is a harmful practice and should be eradicated.(38) However, though numbers suggest that FGM is slowly diminishing, it is unlikely that the practice will be fully eradicated any time soon. For example, since parents are aware of the legal consequences if caught in performing FGM on their daughters, they tend to make them undergo this procedure when they are still infants and cannot report to and draw the attention of the authorities.(39) Similarly, Burkinabé can easily cross the borders and go to Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali and Ivory Coast to have their daughters cut, since in these countries laws on FGM are either lacking or poorly enforced.(40) In the same way, people can lie when interviewed about FGM for fear of judicial and pecuniary consequences. Furthermore, children may be unwilling to implicate their parents for fear of them being arrested. Additionally, as discussed above, the practice of FGM is intertwined with deeply rooted social and cultural beliefs which are not changed or challenged overnight.
As can be deduced from the above, Burkina Faso has demonstrated how continued engagement can contribute to a decrease in FGM prevalence rates. Through sustained efforts against FGM in both national and international laws, and supported by its long-standing experience in preventing and responding to this harmful practice, Burkina Faso has emerged as an African and global leader in the fight against FGM. Burkina Faso and lessons from its anti-FGM concerted set of activities should hence, be considered as an example by the international community, governments and organisations that are looking for ways to combat FGM. However, that is not to say that the fight is over in this small West African country, but its official stance against the practice is a promising start.
(1) Contact Jessica Colombo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit (
). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Claudia Foster-Towne and was edited by Kate Morgan.
(2) These include, from west to east, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia; ‘The knowledge effect: Female genital mutilation – Graphic of the day’, Thomson Reuters, http://blog.thomsonreuters.com.
(3) WHO website, http://www.who.int.
(4) ‘Global consultation on female genital mutilation’, UNFPA, 2010, http://www.unfpa.org.
(6) ‘Female genital mutilation fact sheet’, WHO, February 2013, http://www.who.int.
(7) WHO categorised three main types of FGM: 1. Clitoridectomy, which entails partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris); 2. Excision, which is partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora; 3. Infibulation, which entails the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. In the case of infibulation, the skin is cut to allow sexual intercourse and childbirth, and sometimes the vagina opening is stitched again several times; http://www.who.int.
(8) Dorkenoo, E., ‘Female genital mutilation: Human rights and cultural relativity’, Forward, August 2001, http://www.forwarduk.org.uk.
(10) Karmaker, B., et al., 2011. Factors associated with female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso and its policy implications. International Journal for Equity in Health, 10, pp. 1-9.
(11) ‘The knowledge effect: Female genital mutilation – graphic of the day’, Thompson Reuters, 16 October 2012, http://blog.thomsonreuters.com.
(12) ‘Female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso’, GIZ, 2011, http://www.giz.de.
(13)Institut National de la Statistique et de la Démographie (INSD) Ministère de l'Économie et des Finances and ICF International, 2010, Burkina Faso DHS 2010, http://www.measuredhs.com.
(14) The 2010 DHS was conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Demography (INSD) of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. This nation-wide survey is part of the global programme MEASURE DHS (http://www.measuredhs.com) and was supported by, among others, the World Bank, USAID, UNFPA and UNICEF.
(15) Institut National de la Statistiqueet de la Démographie (INSD) Ministère de l'Économie et des Finances and ICF International, 2010, Burkina Faso DHS 2010, http://www.measuredhs.com.
(22) ‘Female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso’, GIZ, 2011, http://www.giz.de.
(24) Moges, A., ‘What is behind the tradition of FGM?’, http://www.african-women.org.
(25) ‘Female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso’, GIZ, 2011, http://www.giz.de.
(26) Diop N.J., et al., ‘Analysis of the evolution of the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting in BurkinaFaso’, Frontiers Programme, January 2008
(27) ‘Burkina Faso has a strong law against FGM/C, but winning hearts and minds remains crucial’, UNFPA, http://www.unfpa.org.
(28) List of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s signatory of human rights treaties, http://oic-info.org; African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, http://www.achpr.org.
(29) DCAF Burkina Faso country profile, http://www.dcaf.ch.
(31) The UN Secretary-General’s database on violence against women, http://sgdatabase.unwomen.org.
(32) Diop N.J., et al., ‘Analysis of the evolution of the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting in Burkina Faso’, Frontiers Programme, January 2008.
(33) ‘Burkina Faso has a strong law against FGM/C, but winning hearts and minds remains crucial’, UNFPA, http://www.unfpa.org.
(34) Diop N.J., et al., ‘Analysis of the evolution of the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting in Burkina Faso’, Frontiers Programme, January 2008.
(35) ‘Burkina Faso has a strong law against FGM/C, but winning hearts and minds remains crucial’, UNFPA, http://www.unfpa.org.
(37) Increased urbanisation and globalisation, crossover of cultural ideas, shifts in medical rhetoric, increasing feminist discourses in Africa and so on, should also be factored in when trying to draw a cause-effect link explaining the decrease in FGM prevalence.
(38) Institut National de la Statistiqueet de la Démographie (INSD) Ministère de l'Économie et des Finances and ICF International, 2010, Burkina Faso DHS 2010, http://www.measuredhs.com.
(39) UNICEF Burkina Faso, http://www.unicef.org.
(40) ‘Burkina Faso has a strong law against FGM/C, but winning hearts and minds remains crucial’, UNFPA, http://www.unfpa.org.