Sub-Regional Conference on Female Genital Mutilation, "Towards a political and religious consensus against FGM"

Overview Report - Djibouti, 2-3 February 2005

No Peace Without Justice, in cooperation with the Djibouti Government and the Djibouti National Women’s Union and with the technical support of RAINBO, has organised the Sub-Regional Conference on Female Genital Mutilation, "Towards a political and religious consensus against Female Genital Mutilation", held in Djibouti, 2-3 February 2005. The conference, organised with the financial support of UNICEF, UNFPA, OMS, the World Bank, Italian Cooperation, CIDA/GESP, French Cooperation, UNDP, Netherlands OMS and thanks to the cooperation of Djibouti Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines and RTD (Djibouti Radio TV), was held under the High Sponsorship of the First Lady H.E. Mrs Kadra Mahamoud Haid, President of the National Women’s Union of Djibouti and in collaboration with the Ministries concerned with the issue of FGM.
The conference formed an integral part of the international "StopFGM!" campaign, financed by UNICEF and realised together with AIDOS and TOSTAN, for the promotion of the ratification process of the Maputo Protocol, which No Peace Without Justice launched in September 2004 during the Nairobi International Conference on "Developing a political, legal and social environment to implement the Maputo Protocol".
The goals of the conference included facilitating the creation of favourable conditions for the abandonment of the practice in Djibouti as well as in neighbouring countries and the promotion of the anti-FGM consensus already existing at the highest levels of the Government and among religious authorities. In addition, it provided an opportunity to discuss the benefits of enforcement of legislation promoting the total elimination of FGM. The highest religious representatives at national and international level participated in the conference, as well as representatives of regional governments, parliaments and civil society, representatives of other African countries and representatives of all other countries with diplomatic presence in the Republic of Djibouti.
The conference was opened by the Minister of Health of Djibouti, Dr Mohamed Ali Kamil, Mrs Mbaranga Gasarabwe, Regional Coordinator of the United Nations in Djibouti, The Hon Emma Bonino, Member of the European Parliament and founder of No Peace Without Justice and by the First Lady, H.E. Mrs Kadra Mahamoud Haid, President of the National Women’s Union of Djibouti. In particular, the First Lady strongly expressed her support for the implementation of all possible tools that can lead to the abandonment of the harmful practice of FGM, in all its forms, within the next decade. Moreover, she emphasised the importance of ratification of the Maputo Protocol as a very useful tool for the protection of women’s rights and for the development of a new process of fair and sustainable democracy.
The conference was held into two parallel sessions, the former dedicated to debate among local, regional and international Muslim religious authorities, the latter dedicated to the Maputo Protocol and its implementation. The conclusions of these sessions were introduced at the closing plenary session, during which the First Minister of Djibouti delivered the instrument of ratification of the Maputo Protocol to the representative of the African Union.
The two types of FGM most widely practised in Djibouti are excision (common among Yemeni girls) and infibulation (practised on Issa and Afar girls). It is estimated that 90-98% of Djibouti girls have endured FGM: 41% are mutilated before the age of 5 and 95% are mutilated before the age of 10.
Although the practice of FGM is deeply rooted in the culture of the country and in society, the young women of Djibouti began a public debate on the abandonment of FGM at the beginning of the 1980s. Initially, Djibouti’s official position was to discourage infibulation as a first step towards the abandonment of all types of FGM. In 1995, FGM was explicitly included in the Criminal Code (art. 333) as an act punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 5.000 dollars.
The Djibouti Government’s program on the abandonment of FGM has been supported and implemented primarily by the Minister of Health, The Hon Dr. Mohamed Ali Kamil, and by the Minister for Women, Family and Social Affairs, The Hon Hawa Ahmed Youssouf. The Hon Youssouf has for many years been particularly active in putting forward political initiatives in favour of women’s rights, not only regarding FGM, but also in the broader context of women’s civil and political rights. On International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March 2004, the President of the Republic of Djibouti firmly declared his disapproval of any type of FGM, saying that the practise is not provided for in the Koran or in the Hadiths.
Although there have been various programs of prevention and information on the medical, psychological and legal aspects of FGM, the lack of an official position by religious authorities on the issue has to date hindered the fast abandonment of the practice. However, the Cairo Conference, organised by partners of the Stop FGM! Campaign in June 2003, represented a turning point regarding the “religious” motivations of such harmful practices. On that occasion, the highest Muslim and orthodox religious authorities clearly declared that there are no religious grounds on which the mutilation of children can be justified. Following that, The Hon Hawa Ahmed Youssuf re-launched the campaign against FGM by asking No Peace Without Justice to collaborate in the organisation of a sub-regional Conference where religious leaders would be invited to discuss the topic and declare such practices both illegal and useless.

The first Thematic Session was chaired by The Hon Mogueh Dirir Samatar, Ministry for Muslim Affairs in Djibouti, together with Dr M. H. Khayat, Counsellor of the Regional Director of the World Health Organisation’s office for the East Mediterranean. Mr Abdourahman Bachir, Director of the Ministry of the Muslim Affairs of Djibouti was facilitator and both Mr Mohamed Ali Issa, Counsellor of the Ministry for International Cooperation, and Ismail Abdel Khalek El Deftar, Adviser of the University Al Azhar in Cairo were speakers.
Although a debate focusing on whether there are justifications in the Koran for FGM is complex and delicate, participants agreed to have a frank debate on the medical, social and religious aspects of the practise. It must be emphasised that in the weeks prior to the conference, the Government of Djibouti organised preliminary district meetings among Imams of Djibouti and religious experts to supply them with documentation on the different religious, legal, medical, social and cultural aspects of FGM. In particular, participants received an article by Dr Muhammed Selim Al Awa, theologian at the University Al Azhar in Cairo, recently published in Egypt by the newspaper Al Ahram on the initiative of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, partner of the Stop FGM! Campaign. In his article, Dr Al Awa asserts that there is no obligation and/or indication in the Koran about a requirement to practice FGM, including the less invasive practice of sunna. Dr Al Awa supports his reasoning by including the declarations and studies of various theologians and Imams. Participants, therefore, were given precise and thorough information to enable them to concentrate on their analysis of religious aspects of FGM.
Most of the religious representatives expressed their opposition to infibulation and to total excision, based on the assertion in the Koran that God created man and woman as equal, therefore women’s bodies should not be modified in any invasive way. It still remains to be understood if the sunna practice, namely the removal of a small part of the clitoris, is permitted or even compulsory according to the Koran.
Some participants introduced male circumcision as an example in support of the thesis of the admissibility of sunna. They said that circumcision is practised on all Muslim males and that sunna would be the equivalent for Muslim women. The comparison between the two practices was soon revealed as inappropriate, because the sunna necessitates the removal of part of the clitoris. The debate then suddenly turned to the actual surgical act and an (improper) analysis was given that anatomy of the woman depends on race and geographic origin. The female participants then brought the debate back to the protection of physical integrity and respect for human rights, finding a strong ally in the theses of Sudanese Imam Ali Hashim Elsaraj, promoter of various initiatives in favour of the abandonment of the harmful practice and against any type of FGM.
The idea that FGM is useless and inadmissible is supported by one of the fundamental principles of the Koran that the human being is God’s most perfect creature and therefore cannot be improved by man. Imam Elsaraj quoted various interpretations of that passage of the Koran referring to the sunna. Those interpretations engaged participants in a long and vivid debate. Some argued that the fact that the Koran sets no clear prohibition or does not make reference to the inadmissibility of such practice actually gives men and women the freedom to decide on their own. Some religious representatives said they still had doubts as to the extreme gravity of the physical and psychological consequences of FGM and refrained from professing their judgment, deciding instead that the last word should be left to doctors.
As this latter position had been foreseen and in order to give religious representatives a more precise and scientific overview on the physical and psychological consequences of mutilation, two doctors took the floor. They showed some slides in support of their interventions, provoking a heated discussion among the more conservative religious participants regarding the suitability of showing the most intimate parts of the female body in a similar context. The assembly finally expressed that it was in favour of an illustrated explanation.
The most controversial intervention was made by the Counsellor of the Director of the WHO Regional Office, Dr Khayat, who is in favour of a compromise position. He is convinced that it is useful to proceed at a slow pace and to allow the practise of the sunna to a certain extent in order to obtain a clear and definite stop of the more invasive practises of FGM.
Despite the long and animated debate and the clear opposition of the Ministry for Muslim Affairs of Djbouti, the assembly decided to introduce in the plenary session a document in which participants declare themselves against excision because of the poor hygienic conditions in which it is practiced, but specify that if it were practised in different conditions in future and exclusively by doctors and specialists, it should be allowed.

The second thematic session, carried out in parallel with the first session, had participants from civil society, international institutions involved in programs for the abandonment of FGM, regional and international NGOs, representatives of the Government of Djibouti and representatives of other governments.
The session developed three main issues, as follows:
- Women’s rights and the impact on socio-cultural, health and economic development;
- NGO experiences and results in the sub-region;
- the Maputo Protocol.
Women’s rights and the impact on socio-cultural, health and economic development
The first part of the session was co-chaired by the Minister for Health of Djibouti, The Hon Dr Mohamed Ali Kamil, and Mrs Naphy Samb, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Peace Promotion in Senegal; Mrs Degmo Mohamed, General Secretary of UNFD, Djibouti was facilitator; and Mrs Djama, Advisor to the Prime Minister in Djibouti and Mrs Miriam Martinelli, Director of Training of the Heath Project, Italian Cooperation in Djibouti were rapporteurs.
During the session, the following participants took the floor:
- Ms Mari Adillahi Ibrahim, Deputy Director, Edna Ismail Hospital, Somaliland
- Ms Safia Elmi Djibril, Reproductive Health Program, Djibouti, on Correlations between FGM and obstetrical complications
- Ms Joanne Vogel, Health and Development of Women, WHO
- Dr Carlo Astini, Director of the Balbala Hospital, Djibouti, on Presentation of problematic cases
- Mr Ali Lotf Al Thoor, IPPF/AWRO, Arab World Regional Office
- Ms Samira Ahmed, Assistant Child Officer, UNICEF, Sudan
- Brikti Hbtai Tsefalassie, Project Co-ordinator, NUEW, Eritrea
In addition to analysing the prevalence of FGM in countries of the sub-region of the Horn of Africa, interventions discussed the last censuses and the relative statistics on the incidence of the practice in different social groups and on its medical consequences. In particular, participants stressed the need for a serious campaign promoting the rights of the child and ensuring the accessibility of programs of medical support and informationto all social groups. The impact of laws that punish persons who practice FGM were also considered, laws that, by all accounts, are not sufficient and need integrated programs at all levels. Above all, participants discussed the commencement of a serious and constant dialogue with religious representatives in order to fight the absurd idea that FGM is condoned by the Koran.
NGO experiences and results in the sub-region
This second part of the session was chaired by the Minister in charge of International Co-operation of Djibouti, The Hon Mahamoud Ali Youssouf and the Minister for Home Affairs of Kenya, The Hon Linah J. Kilimo. Ms Maria Gabriella De Vita, Child Protection Program Division, UNICEF, was facilitator and Ms Aicha Ibrahim, Program Coordinator of UNFPA, Djibouti, and Mr Chehen Mohamed Watta, USAID, Djibouti were rapporteurs.
During the session, the following participants took the floor:
- Ms Degmo Mohamed, Secretary General of UNFD
- Ms Daniela Colombo, President, AIDOS (Italian Association of Women in Development)
- Ms Oubla Mohamed Saeed, President, National Women’s Committee, Aden, Yemen
- Ms Pamela Mburia, Secretary-General, Association of Media Women in Kenya
- Ms Kadidja Sidibe, AMSOPT, Mali
- Mr Michael Miller, Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF, Italy
- Ms Soumaya El Bashir, AMFAD University of Women, Sudan
- Ms Bogalech Gebre, Director, KMG, Ethiopia
This part of the session focused on the experience of NGOs engaged in anti-FGM programs in the social, medical and childhood field. In particular, the Secretary-General of UNFD, Ms Degmo Mohamed, illustrated in a long and detailed intervention the different programs implemented by UNFD since the early 80s which originally focused on a compromise strategy aiming at guaranteeing the respect for proper hygienic and sanitary measures for the sunna practise. Since the 90s, the UNFD campaign centred on the total abolition of all forms of FGM, leading the Government to include article 333 of the Djiouti Criminal Code, which criminalises that practice.
The speakers agreed on the point raised by the President of AIDOS, Daniela Colombo, who stressed the importance of looking at the twenty-year struggle against FGM, which has not lead to the abandonment of the practice, as the failure of partial strategies. In order to be successful and incisive, anti-FGM strategies should not be limited to medical aspects but should include political and cultural actions influencing the power relationship between men and women. Therefore, it is crucial that men, religious authorities, Heads of villages and all those with decision-making powers with respect to FGM be included in a public and transparent debate. It is also extremely important to insist on the promotion of human rights and women’s rights, addressing also the aspect of reproductive health as an instrument to strengthen the political and social role of women. Participants, however, acknowledged that the international community is moving in the right direction, including through a number of international Directives for the abandonment of FGM.
The Maputo Protocol
The third part of the session was chaired by the Minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment, Family Welfare and Social Affairs of Djibouti, The Hon Hawa Ahmed and the Minister for Labour and Social Affairs of Ethiopia, The Hon Hassan Abdella. Mr Abdi Ismaïl Hersi, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Justice of Djibouti was facilitator. Ms Ayane Awaleh, Consultant to the Presidency of Djibouti, Ms Els Leye of the International Centre of Reproductive Health, University of Gandt, Belgium, Mr Ali Sillaye, Ministry for Health, Djibouti and Ms Marie Claire Mutanda, Program Officer of UNICEF, Dijbouti were rapporteurs.
During the session, the following participants took the floor:
- Ms Zeinab Kamil Ali, Jurist, Djibouti
- Mr Anthony Njoroge, Consultant, Human Rights Commission, Kenya
- Dr Ghada Hafez, Consultant, WHO
- Ms Faiza Djiama Mohammed, Equality Now
- Ms Linda Osarenren, Inter-African Committee
- Dr Emad Mamoun Abdeen, Sudan
- Mr Ali Lotf Al Thoor, IPPF/AWRO, Arab World Regional Office
- Ms Bogalech Gebre, Director KMG, Ethiopia
- Ms Joanne Vogel, Health and Development of Women, WHO
The debate addressed several issues related to the Maputo Protocol and in particular the positive impact of the ratification process on the struggle against FGM. Minister Hawa Hamed stressed the willingness of the Djibouti Government to encourage ratification by other governments of the region. Participants raised the different political aspects concerning the ratification process, stressing the importance of strong pressure on governments from civil society. International organisations declared themselves willing to work in this direction and NGOs reaffirmed their commitment to participating, supporting and promoting similar initiatives for the encouragement of the ratification of the Maputo Protocol.

On Thursday, 3 February, at 2.30 pm, participants gathered in a plenary session for the summary of reports from the different sessions. Although some of the religious authorities had expressed their concern regarding tolerance of the sunna during the first thematic session, the Minister in charge of the Wakfs Goods and of Muslim Affairs of Djibouti, following the will of the majority of participants, read the declaration from Thematic Session 1 and in particular the sentence reading “we believe that the sunna can be maintained on condition that it is practised by surgeons and specialists”. This provoked a chorus of protests, which joined together women and representatives from governments and international organisations, strongly opposing such an inclusion in the final declaration In the face of such a strong opposition from participants, Minister Mogueh Dirir Satar tore up the final part of the declaration of the Ulemas, publicly declaring “in the name of Allah, merciful lord, this request is rejected”.
Amidst embraces and to the great satisfaction of participants and of the more progressive Ulemas, the Prime Minister of Djibouti, The Hon Dileita Mohamed Dileita, presented the instrument of ratification of the Maputo Protocol to the representative of the African Union, Mr Bernard Zoba. At the end of the closing ceremony, Emma Bonino was decorated by the Prime Minister of Djibouti.