Although African women have opposed the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)--also known as female circumcision (FC) or female genital cutting--since at least the 1960s, only in the early 1990s has an explosion of global interest hurled the theme onto popular and academic landscapes.1 For instance, on April 6, 2002, a Google search for "female genital mutilation" would have yielded 38,400 hits; the same search on the same day using Yahoo would bring up 30,000. No, I didn't burn my eyes on all 38,400, but I can assure you that with two exceptions, the first 400 Yahoo results were relevant, leading to governmental institutions, NGOs, universities, health facilities, law libraries, knowledgeable laypeople, and documentation ranging from newspaper clippings and editorial pages to refereed articles in respected journals.
Among these many apt results, the websites of several weighty institutions stand out as especially valuable resources for professionals as well as for newcomers to the topic. Because of the synergy of the approach taken by these organizations, exploring their sites will also lead to information and other resources related to HIV/AIDS, development, violence, and human rights. FGM is a highly interdisciplinary subject involving anthropology, ethnology, political science, law, immigration studies, health and medical specialties, not to mention media and issues of representation--that last being the only discipline underrepresented, on the Internet at least, among those first 400 hits.
Granted a "Go Network" Website Award in 1999, the Female Genital Mutilation Education and Networking Project is a web-based initiative that, Dani Hrzan has noted,2 is "perfect for graduate students conducting research on various aspects of FGM." The site is popular among activists and professionals too, its main drawback at present being several features that have not been updated in years. This problem, however, should be solved in July 2002 with a headquarters change and resumption of active management.
In the meantime, the attractive red and brown homepage presents easily navigable, clear categories. Praiseworthy features include a search engine (with tips) and lists of FGM advocacy groups.
The lists of advocacy groups number many, but the major overhaul and updating scheduled for July 2002 should improve this section of the site. For instance, only eight African countries are currently listed; surely the twenty-plus members of the Inter-African Committee will be added. For Europe, the Netherlands' two main FGM groups--Pharos ("lighthouses"), for refugee health care, and FSAN (Federatie van Somalische Associaties in Nederland) need to be added, as do dozens of Italian organizations (although AIDos--Associazione Italiana Donne Per Lo Sviluppo--the leading Italian NGO, is listed). No groups at all are listed yet for Germany, although eight associations could appear here. The list for the U.S. is the most complete, although I noticed that the address given for the Godparents Association is not current. In fairness, it should be mentioned that the site owner does invite readers to email her with the names of other organizations that should be added (and I will certainly do so).
This site's greatest strengths are its in-depth articles by avant-garde scholars, links to authors' own websites, and links to sites offering theoretical and practice-oriented resources in health, law, religion, and advocacy. For example, clicking on "Links to Educational, Medical, and Legal Resources" leads to a list of further links offering such widely varying materials as online versions of the Qu'ran, Amnesty International's website, a guide to vulvar self-examination, and the Global Alliance for Women's Health's Women's Health Compendium. It is also possible to find (not in a straightforward way, but this will, no doubt, be corrected in the July 2002 site overhaul) lists of videos as well as books on both female and male genital mutilation, although, again, more up-to-date sources need to be added.
Overall, this website lives up to the educational and networking promises of its name, and should do so to a greater extent when its redesigned and updated version is unveiled this summer. I appreciate not only the site's wealth of material but also its role in facilitating access to resource persons via the FGM discussion list (readers can click on "Subscribe to FGM-L" or "FGM-L Archives" under "Discussion Lists and Boards").
Honored by a "Go Network" Website Award in June 1999 (despite its untamed tangle of font colors and sizes), Rising Daughters Aware (formerly the Female Genital Mutilation Network and Message Board) is exclusively web-based, the virtual collective's mission its electronic provision of data "vital to the health, dignity, safety and support of women and girls...free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." It recommends "qualified medical and advocacy assistance for women who are seeking to avoid, or have already been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for non-medical reasons."
The site has two key virtues: its links and the refereed articles targeted to precise constituencies.
One can find networks of FGM organizations in several ways through this site, although it is not always immediately clear what principles underlie linkage. Under "FGM Organizations working hands-on in affected communities," only six are listed--FORWARD UK, CAMS (Commission pour l'Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles), TOSTAN, the Godparents' Association, Zuriaw African Women Counseling & Orphanage Center, and the Sudan National Committee on Traditional Practices--a seemingly stingy offering were it not that most of these groups work together with other extensive networks. The Sudan National Committee, for instance, is one of twenty-eight Inter African Committee subsections: CAMS (Dakar and Paris) embraces GAMS (Groupe Femme pour l'Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles), in Paris, Brussels, Addis Ababa, and Geneva. GAMS, in turn, plays a key role in the European Network against FGM.
Expansion of global efforts across disciplines is an organizing principle of this site as well. If, as activists believe, FGM will cede to women's increased economic choices, it makes sense that links are provided to NGOs concerned with micro-enterprise (from the main page, click on "Organizations working to improve women's economics," and then choose "The Virtual Library on Micro-credit"). Human rights groups would certainly be potential allies (so Amnesty International, for example, is listed and linked under "General International Organizations" near the bottom of the main page). Literacy is a significant and related issue--and RDA provides links to several resources (including a UNESCO article), accessible from "Organizations working to improve women's literacy and education" on the main page.
Whereas bibliographies offer indirect access, RDA's direct provision of refereed, full-text articles saves time. Its "FGM Crash Course Materials for Health Providers"--an excellent selection of key articles, accessible from the page that appears after clicking on "For Health Providers: Medical Articles & Protocols"--first caught my eye years ago. Included in this downloadable, 160-page "packet," which is meant to be printed out and kept in a binder, is a "Consultant Contacts" page that lists the email addresses and telephone numbers of physician experts. The materials in the packet also emphasize culturally sensitive guidelines that have proven successful in influencing patients' and clinicians' attitudes and encourage health care workers to develop rapport with affected communities. For example, in "Female 'Circumcision': African Women Confront American Medicine," physicians Carol R. Horowitz and J. Carey Jackson outline wise clinical guidelines--based on advice gleaned from their Eritrean, Somalian and Ethiopian patients--for avoiding misconceptions and hurt feelings.
This site also offers "Cultural Links by Country," leading to background information on the cultures of twenty African nations (although a number of these links do not currently work); links to searchable African newspapers and feminist news sources as well as individual news articles about FGM; a bibliography of books, films, and videos; and a confidential way for women and girls affected by FGM to find peer support groups. Nor is the legal profession neglected. From the main page, you can click on "For Attorneys" and then on "Law Firms & Law Clinics With FGM issues experience" to discover, among others, the Tahirih Justice Center, which won Fauziya Kassindja's asylum case, and the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, where the book Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide (London: Zed Books, 2000) is described. Co-author Nahid Toubia is the president of RAINBO, whose website is examined next.
Working at the "intersection between health and human rights of women," RAINBO
accurately describes itself as "the premier global authority on [FGM] in the international donor
and technical agency community." An international benevolent association with offices in New
York City and London, RAINBO works in Uganda, South Africa, the Gambia, and Nigeria, and
keeps a senior advisor in Egypt. RAINBO insists on strong African leadership in its eradication
efforts and strives to employ culturally sensitive syntax that simultaneously "promote[s] and
protect[s] women's sexual and reproductive rights." Nahid Toubia, who was Sudan's first female
surgeon, explains the organization's approach in her "Message from RAINBO's President"
(linked from "Who We Are"):
Many…ask why...sexual and reproductive health and rights [are] important for African girls and women when the whole community is suffering from poverty, disease, low literacy and civil unrest. My answer is that traditional control over women's sexuality and fertility is a major obstacle to women's participation in public life...[to] economic development and [to] building strong democracies.... African women and girls deserve to have their human rights acknowledged and protected as equal citizens in the "Global Village" of the twenty first century.
FC/FGM, viewed in the broader context of gender-based violence, is most effectively countered with the catalyst of African women's own input. To this end, RAINBO informs, advises, networks, researches, and publishes. The organization's aims are furthered by this well-designed, easily navigable site. The menu bar leads to the International Program (which works closely with European-based NGOs), the Africa Program, and the African Immigrant Program (which works with communities in the U.S.). Information about AMANITARE, a model African teen-agers' project, can be found on the Africa Program page or linked to from within "Message from the President" (under "Who We Are"). Other choices on the menu bar are "News & Events," "Offices & Contact Information," "Publications," "How You Can Help," "Links" (these are annotated, and their richness cannot be overstated), and a site map. Outstanding features include a fact sheet for physicians called "Caring for Women with Circumcision" (choose "Who We Are" from the menu bar, then click on the hyperlinked phrase "Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation" in the first paragraph). The fact sheet offers a chart of possible health consequences of FGM and advises clinicians on culturally appropriate ways to talk to patients (for instance, physicians are encouraged to use the term "circumcision" in speaking to women affected by FGM, because that is the term the women use).
RAINBO openly reveals its stance, which is not one of pure condemnation: "we believe that advocacy for social change is less serviced by mere demands than by providing clear 'how to' methods for those in strategic positions…capable of implementing change." The website indicates that the organization offers help with "policy formulation, program design, research and training projects" upon request. Equally important, RAINBO "promote[s] the integration of FC/FGM projects into the work of larger well-funded health and rights programs such as Reproductive Health, Safe Motherhood and Prevention of Violence Against Women." Hotlinks to NGOs in these categories are amply provided, making this one of the most rewarding of all FGM sites.
Finally, RAINBO provides assessment, which is often deficient in a field that lacks funds. A project called "Female Genital Mutilation Review, Evaluation, and Monitoring (FGM-REM)" is researching and analyzing programs in order to develop appraisal instruments--in short, to evaluate how effectively money is being spent.
FORWARD is "an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to improving the health and well-being of African women and girls wherever they reside." On arrival at the group's website, you are reminded--and not so subtly--that cash, though its impact may be hard to measure, is any movement's backbone. Next to a picture of a still-smiling young girl (whose name turns out to be Kadi and who endured FGM at the age of four) on the main page is an announcement that proceeds from the sale of the book The Day Kadi Lost Part of Her Life, by R. Rioja and K. Manresa (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1998), "go to support vital health and education projects in Africa." I can assure you that this is true.
Introducing Kadi, a real person with a history, satisfies readers' desires for connection. The book, however, remains controversial, its photo chronicle of Kadi's surgery raising issues of representation and honor."We witness Kadi taken by the buankisa (circumciser), made to undress, held down and then cut," reads the promotional material. FORWARD, of course, is aware of the provocation, and elaborates: "While the photographs are very confronting, they are portrayed with sensitivity and delicacy, yet evoke sadness and anger, which we hope will serve to rally readers against this practice."
The projects for which FORWARD raises funds, through sales of this book and other means, are pioneering and impressive. Click on "News and Events," then on "Current Work." In addition to defining alternative ceremonies in the Gambia, doing consciousness-raising in Ghana, and researching prevalence in Kenya, most moving is a successful treatment program for vesico-vaginal fistulae (VVF) under way in Nigeria's Dambatta, Kano State. A hotlink defines VVF--holes torn between the vagina and the urethra during childbirth--and explains that fifteen percent of VVF cases are traceable to FGM. Radio jingles, posters, and video dramas teach villagers about this condition and let them know about the rehabilitation center that offers girls not only surgical repair but also adult literacy classes and vocational training. "All of the women who enrolled in the project were illiterate at first," says the project description, but one year later they can read, write and do basic math offered "in preparation for bookkeeping lessons, which will form part of planned business activities." The curriculum includes "livestock rearing, sewing, knitting, [and] soap making as means of income generation" that can be employed once the student-patients recover and return home. Graduates are encouraged to teach others.
In the U.K., FORWARD does activist research--for instance, an important study of "Knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) of FGM," sponsored by the Kensington, Chelsea, Westminster Health Authority among Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Eritreans. The fact that 81.4% of interviewees, most of them in their reproductive years, had undergone FGM meant "a challenge to health professionals and existing health services"--one example of data urgently needed to support effective policy. The study is briefly described on FORWARD's site under "Research" on the "Current Work" page (accessible through "News & Events").
FORWARD has also pioneered medical care for immigrants. Its Well Woman Clinics in London, Birmingham, and Liverpool are renowned throughout Europe. Click on "Help and Advice" to see a list of these clinics.
In Europe, FORWARD participates in the emerging European Network, which includes NGOs in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and the U.K. Most of these groups maintain websites: clicking on "Links to FGM Sites" (under "Help, Advice and Training" on the left side of the home page) will lead to forty such organizations. They include, of course, FORWARD Germany, which offers one unique approach to abolition: Nigerian oil paintings depicting the social complexity of FGM. Our exhibition will have toured more than fifty German cities between February 2000 and 2004. Visit us at http://www.forward.dircon.co.uk/germany. Click on "Nigerian Exhibition."
1. The FGM-List, with searchable archives, is sponsored by The Female Genital Mutilation Education and Networking Project described below and provides a forum for exchange of information on genital mutilation. Webmistress is Marianne Sarkis.
2. Email correspondence, Feb. 4, 2002.
[President of FORWARD Germany and secretary of the European Network against FGM, Tobe Levin earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University and teaches for the University of Maryland in Europe and J.W.-Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main. She edits Feminist Europa. Review of Books, which features publications on FGM and other feminist topics, published in European languages other than English. She is also active in Women's International Studies Europe (WISE).]
The site briefly describes and gives the table of contents for Dr. Aldeeb's book Male Circumcision and Female Circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate. Geneva: Shangri-La Publications, 2001.Amnesty International's Human Rights Information Pack
This is the first of eleven units defining the operations, explaining Amnesty International's involvement with the issue, and providing lists of advocacy groups, reading material, and more.Association of African Women Scholars (AAWS)
AAWS, founded by Professor Obioma Nnaemeka, "is a worldwide organization dedicated to promoting and encouraging scholarship on African women in African Studies." It maintains a discussion list whose participants have focused on FGM. It also sponsors major conferences where FGM has been a topic.Circumcision Information and Resources Pages (CIRP): Female Circumcision
Devoted to illuminating both male circumcision and FGM, the site provides a "Circumcision Reference Library" and "Circumcision Information Pages" addressing medical issues, legal and cultural questions, and reversal treatment options.Deutsche-Afrikanische Fraueninitiative (DAFI) (German-African Women's Initiative)
An attractive site in English and German, it defines its aims in terms of "breaking taboos together" and offers counseling options to African women resident in Berlin. It links to activist organizations in Europe, the U.S., and Africa and lists the best available books on the subject in German.Godparents Association
The Godparents Association seeks sponsors for Ugandan girls. By paying their school fees, the
association "encourage[s] them in their resistance to FGM.... The Godparents Association also
provides tutoring, training for those with special abilities, and motivating experiences so that
these young women can become leaders of women in their culture, their country, and the world."
The site links to FORWARD and Equality Now.
The homepage of the German Organization for Development Aid--there is an English version-- immediately offers you a search option. The term "FGM" leads to ninety-four documents on this site. These describe GTZ projects in Africa as well as colloquia that have brought together more than a dozen groups concerned with FGM in Germany.International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH)
Associated with the University of Ghent, Belgium, the site details projects such as "female genital mutilation (FGM) among migrants in Europe" and "the European network for prevention of FGM in Europe"; gives the executive summary of Proceedings of the FGM expert meeting in November 1998; links to related internet sites; and provides a database of European resource persons and lists materials.National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC)
With more than 110 centers worldwide, NOCIRC educates against genital cutting of male and female babies. Founded on March 15, 1986, by a group of healthcare professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area, NOCIRC is the first U.S. national clearinghouse for information about circumcision. The site links to affiliated organizations and provides bibliographies.Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH)
The site defines the practice, links to "Female Genital Mutilation: The Facts" (an excellent overview), and reviews the status and trends in FGM programs in countries in the WHO African and Eastern Mediterranean Regions.Sistahspace: Nommo ("Word"): FGM
This site provides a four-page list of annotated hotlinks to valuable full-text articles on FGM.Terre des femmes: Human Rights for Women
Mainly in German, the site provides English summaries of anti-FGM caucus work and links to associated sites.Third World Women's Health: FGM
Living up to its name, this site, though for abolition, looks at criticism of "Western" campaigns that present African women as victims rather than agents. After defining the practice of FGM, it links to activist organizations under the rubrics "what should be done?" and "how can I take action?"Tostan ("Breakthrough" in the Wolof language): Women's Health & Human Rights
"Tostan is an American non-governmental organization based in Senegal, West Africa, focused on empowering villagers to take charge of their own development and participate fully in society." Its human rights, holistic approach to abolition of FGM has been widely praised.World Health Organization's Actions for Elimination
This site provides a bibliographic database, fact sheets, "Female Genital Mutilation: An Overview," an information pack, an "Islamic Ruling on Male on Female Circumcision," a joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement, and more. The homepage search option for "FGM" produces 37 related addresses.Zonta/UNICEF Video Transcript
This site provides the screenplay of a documentary that chronicles actions to promote eradication in Burkina Faso, funded jointly by ZONTA, UNICEF, and the United Nations Children's Fund.
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