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How FGM violates women’s rights

Zebiba Hassan, protection and inclusion lead for Islamic Relief Ethiopia, talks about the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and why we need to strive to help women to lead healthy, empowered lives free from violence.

Living and working in Ethiopia, I can say for myself: life for women in rural districts such as Hargelle district is far from easy. Beyond the overwhelming struggle of trying to maintain a livelihood in a rural area, these women are often the target of harmful traditional practices – such as female genital mutilation (FGM).

Whilst women are usually responsible for the majority of daily work, ranging from household chores to water gathering and childcare, they are also financially dependent on the men in their households. This makes them deeply vulnerable to violence because of their gender.

This, in turn, has a profoundly negative impact upon their physical, emotional, financial and sexual wellbeing.

FGM: “Getting cut” for the sake of men

In Hargelle, physical violence is common at all ages of a woman’s life. In some households, fathers, brothers and husbands all assert authority over the girls and women in their lives. Seeing them as incapable of making the right decisions, they instead take control, and some of them engage in emotional, physical and sometimes sexual violence.

Before a girl can get married she must “get cut”. Girls aged from around 8 to 11 years old are subjected to FGM – a procedure which traumatises the girl physically, emotionally and sexually for the rest of her life. In some villages, FGM is believed to be a religious requirement whilst in others it is seen as an ancient cultural tradition. In reality, it is a cultural practice, not a religious practice. The Qur’an explicitly states how we must preserve our own physical wellbeing: “…and make not your own hands contribute to your destruction” (2:195).

As a result of the procedure, girls will experience physical discomfort, emotional trauma and even life-threatening medical conditions. After the marriage, the trauma persists. Sexual intercourse and childbirth can be incredibly painful as the vagina is opened and closed once again following the initial episode of FGM.As a married woman is seen as her husband’s property in Hargelle communities, how a husband then treats his wife is seen as his own personal business. If a wife’s husband dies, then the wife is still considered to be the property of the late husband’s family. She may even be forced to marry the brother-in-law or cousin on her husband’s side. If she refuses, then she will remain unmarried for the rest of her life, which is a great sign of shame and confers social stigma and financial difficulty upon her.

If the widow remarries someone of her own choice, she’ll risk being physically attacked by the late husband’s family and may be forced to leave her home. She will then be denied the right to see her children. This is if course contrary to Islamic teachings which guarantee women the right to marry/re-marry of her own free will, (ex-) spousal support and the right to inheritance.

In Islam, men and women are equals to each other as outlined in the Qur’an: “The believers, men and women, are helpers, supporters, friends and protectors of one another” (9:71). Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself explicitly stated that: “Women are the sisters of men” (Ahmad, Abu Dawud).

When it comes to marriage, husbands and wives are equal in the eyes of Allah (SWT) and should be respected and treated with love, compassion and kindness:

And one of His signs is that He has created for you, spouses from amongst yourselves so that you might take comfort in them and He has placed between you, love and mercy. In this there is surely evidence (of the truth) for the people who carefully think. (Qur’an, 30:21)

As Muslims, we must protect and cherish the rights of all women and girls.

Empowering local women: The way forward

If we’re to enable women to lead safe dignified lives, we must challenge the harmful traditions and abuse that have affected the lives of women and girls for generations. Our aim is to therefore actively socially and economically empower these women. We want women and girls to no longer be considered as property and instead face healthier, more empowered futures.

To do this we must cover a range of factors. We need to actively:

1. Increase knowledge about FGM

Perhaps the greatest challenge is lack of knowledge. The vast majority of the women we work with have very low levels of literacy and often little to no knowledge of their rights and the true teachings of Islam regarding marriage and FGM. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to such violence and unaware of how to change their lives for the better.  Communities instead require training – including basic literacy and health education – to know the risks of FGM and their rights. They also need to know that the Qur’an explicitly teaches us to respect men and women equally and preserve our health and wellbeing.

2. Challenge socio-cultural norms

Without a change in socio-cultural norms, community members will still carry out FGM. We need to work with local women, religious leaders and other key figures in the community – such as health workers – to raise awareness and speak out against harmful practices at Friday sermons and other gatherings.

3. Financially empower women

In addition to raising critical awareness of women’s sexual and social rights, women must also be empowered economically to break the negative cycle of dependence. Literacy and skill-based training, as well as financial and technical support, can enable these women to start small businesses and support themselves. We need to encourage women to be financially independent, to increase their confidence and show them that they must stand up for their rights. By providing and developing alternative forms of income for female cutters, such as animal rearing, opening small businesses and developing forms of trade, we can offer financial independence to enable women to take control over their own lives.

We need to speak out and work with communities to tackle FGM. It’s not going to be easy; things won’t change overnight. But we have to continue the struggle to protect women against FGM. Women in Hargelle and across the globe deserve better.

Take the first step towards tackling FGM. Help raise crucial awareness in your community by pledging to deliver a khutbah at your local mosque or community centre. The change starts here. Save a life, take action today.

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