11:00 A.M. EST
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Welcome to each and every one of you. We have gathered here this morning to discuss a very serious issue. It is one that touches many parts of the world – Africa in many places, the Middle East in places, Southeast Asia, even immigrant communities who come to the West who engage in the practice, which is variously called female genital mutilation or female genital cutting. It is one that has serious impacts, touching some 100 million to 140 million women. Another 3 million girls and women are at risk of being cut this year alone on the African continent.
Now, why do we worry about this problem? Why are we concerned about it? Why is there an international movement and regional and local movements to work at the abandonment of this practice? It is because it is a serious violation of human rights and a very serious public health issue. It is one that is, in practice, essentially a right of passage, but a right of passage with very serious consequences, resulting in poor health, in pain, certainly childbirth pain, infection, very difficult childbirth complications often, even infant mortality and maternal mortality.
And it is one that often is claimed to be done in the name of religion, but we’ve got the imam with us this morning to certainly disabuse us of that argument, because essentially it is a cultural practice and not one mandated in any Qu’ranic values or other religious tenets.
There has been over the last many years a concerted effort to address this issue. It has manifested itself both in the passage of laws by countries, but as you can imagine, as important as laws are in saying this is a violation of human rights, it’s really the application of a commitment on the part of people on the ground who recognize that this is an issue that should be abandoned. And so it is essentially the work that happens at the grassroots level with village leaders, with men, with boys, with the whole community. And we’re going to hear this morning about what I think is one of the preeminent programs anywhere in the world, run by Molly Melching, to my right, who is here from Tostan, which had its start in Senegal. And I can remember years ago traveling with then First Lady Hillary Clinton and meeting firsthand some of the villagers who went through this process, abandoned this practice as a result, as the village leaders – the imams, the wise leaders in the village – understood that this was harmful to the women in the village to their daughters. And they then, as you will hear, took their cause and grew this movement from village to village. That is one of the most successful and effective ways in addressing this.
We at the State Department and the United States Government are joining the international community in the International Day of Zero Tolerance for this practice. It actually took place a few days ago, but we will be marking it tomorrow at the State Department with an address by Secretary Clinton as well as Congressman Joe Crowley, who has been very active on this issue, and a very distinguished panel, including both the woman to my right and the gentleman to my left, Imam Magid. And they represent some of the best work that is going on on this issue, and the imam is working in the local area here but he has worked overseas on this and he is a powerful witness to what can be done.
The United States Government has been supporting a variety of programs through efforts by various offices at the State Department dealing with refugees, dealing with human rights issues. The Office of Global Women’s Issues has been supporting some grassroots programs. And USAID, our development agency, has been significantly involved in being supportive.
So with that very, very general overview, let me turn it over to two people who have done extraordinary work in addressing this issue at the local level, where it touches people’s lives and where they are abandoning it. I was telling Molly earlier that about a year ago I witnessed an abandonment ceremony in Upper Egypt that was just extraordinary to be witness to, because there were literally hundreds of people from the encompassing region with their religious leaders – men and women, boys and girls – all very honestly talking about what they had learned about how this has had a deleterious impact in some ways, certainly in terms of health, on the lives of their girls and women, and they were abandoning it.
So there is very important work going on around the world, and let me turn to Molly first to hear about what Tostan has been doing and what she has seen about what works and what doesn’t work.
MS. MELCHING: Thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me here today to be with the imam, who is doing wonderful work. And thank you for highlighting this important issue, which is really an important issue to discuss at this particular moment in time because we are having success with many other organizations who are working on this issue around Africa now and even in other countries around the world.
I am Molly Melching. I went to Senegal 37 years ago. I went for six months and ended up staying for much longer. And when I went to Senegal, I realized that many women, particularly women and girls, adolescent girls, living in villages did not have access to basic information which they needed in order to make important decisions about their health, about their families, about their communities. And when I realized that with information in their own language – this is really important – the only education really offered to them was that of formal school in French, which is very different from these women’s experiences, and giving them an education in their own language, which was so critical for them and with which they could do so much – they could get so much information that they did not have – we started a basic education program. And in 1991 I founded Tostan as a nongovernmental organization, a 501(c)(3) organization registered here in America, but we have our headquarters in Senegal. And we are now in eight African countries.
We started our program, and in the beginning we didn’t even discuss FGC. And this is very interesting because it was through education, education around human rights, democracy, about the right to participate, to be able to stand up and give your opinion on issues of the community, around the right be free from all forms of violence, the right to be free from all forms of discrimination, especially the right to health, and our responsibilities related to all those different human rights. It was through this dialogue in the safe space of a classroom where women and men and adolescents came together to discuss these issues in their own language for the first time that people started saying, wait a minute, we do have negative consequences to certain practices that we are now really imposing on our children. There was no way that a girl could not be cut in these communities because going through this practice was necessary for good marriage. It was necessary for a child to have a good reputation to be able to cook food, to serve water; you had to have gone through this practice.
And it was because of this dialogue, first in the classroom, and then as people really learned the facts, they learned all about their health, how bodies develop in a healthy way; it was through dialogue with the village religious leaders, going and asking the religious leaders, “Is this an Islamic practice?” and learning that it was not, that people decided we can end this practice, we do have an alternative. And it was through this program that villagers decided to stand up. And the first public declaration was in Malicounda Bambara in 1997, July 31st. At the time, we didn’t realize this was African Women’s Day, but it is African Women’s Day. And so it was the first village that stood up and abandoned.
And they had many problems. They were attacked, insulted by all of the family that they belonged to – the extended family. And we were very lucky because an imam who had also been through the program who was in another village, he came to the village, he saw what was happening and how the women were suffering from having made this courageous decision. And he said this is not the way to abandon FGC. The way to abandon a social norm where there are sanctions if you do not practice it is rather for you to go out and get the whole social network, the whole extended family, on board with this decision – not just part of it, not just one group. And that includes not only the neighboring villages, but these may be villages that are in other countries in Mali or Gambia or Guinea. And it may even include family that lives here in the United States or in France.
And it was after that that he himself walked from village to village – this is Imam Demba Diawara – and he got people to come together and come to consensus around abandoning this practice. And what he did – and I give him full credit for having started a vast movement that has now led to 5,002 villages in Senegal having abandoned this practice through their social networks, through consensus, in a very peaceful, unified way, a way that gives them full dignity for having made this decision. It’s not about blame and shame. It is not about going out and saying this is bad, we’re fighting against it. No, it’s about people getting the information they need to make good decisions and then coming together within their families; and then we have what they call the public declaration, where people actually decide as an extended family to abandon the practice, and the next day everyone knows that this is no longer expected, as it was before.
And this has moved to other countries now. We have in Guinea 528 communities in Guinea have now abandoned, thanks to a program with USAID-Guinea and UNICEF-Guinea. And the Gambia, 127 villages; Mauritania, 78 villages; Somalia and Djibouti and Guinea-Bissau have all made public declarations for the abandonment of this practice. And we see the movement growing. There is a momentum.
And this is why this event is critical, because it is events like this that help people see that this can happen in our generation. Ending this practice can happen in our generation if we move forward and educate women. We’ve said it – we’ve said it so many times – basic education empowering education in national language will lead not only to the end of FGC but to so many other practices being ended. Child marriage is also ending through this empowering education. Domestic violence has ended in almost all our communities because the women have stood up and said no, we no longer accept this, we know our human rights, this is not part of what we are – our goals for the future, and we have come together and decided, so no one accept this anymore.
So it’s a wonderful event, and thank you so much because without the men, without the religious leaders like you, Imam, this movement would not be occurring today. And this is so important that all members of the community be involved in this movement.
Thank you again.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Thank you, Molly. And Imam.
IMAM MAGID: Thank you, Ambassador, for your leadership and for having us to come together on a very important issue today. And I will like to say you are a champion on this. You have brought people together, indeed a catalyst to bring imams and advocates toward this issue.
I would like to say that the role of religious community in addressing this important issue, the FGC, it is crucial because of some people have used religious argument, as the ambassador said eloquently. And I was in Darfur and we spoke to midwives – just about two weeks ago, three weeks ago I was there – and there’s a local imam, very powerful imam, just like the imam mentioned in Senegal, who eloquently addressed the issue. And a lady that’s been doing this for 20 years stood up and said, “This will be the last time for me doing these kind of things.” And then – even she give some suggestions. She said the midwives who deliver babies, they may need to increase their fees of delivering the baby instead of being paid to do this kind of practice, and so they can abandon the practice.
The issue also here, is – the cultural sensitivity. You and I were speaking earlier of the language sensitivity, using – the use of language. And it’s very important, when addressing it from the religious point of view, is to use the Koran to address the issue, rather than to say it is Islamically unacceptable.
From the Islamic point of view, Islam respect human dignity and human honor and human life, and one of the objectives of Islamic law is to preserve female wife. Being from Sudan, I have seen women lose their life, actually, because of the practice giving birth. Marriages went very bad and domestic violence occurred because of a lack of intimacy in relationship. Therefore, this is really about saving family, bringing honor and dignity, enforcing good values, and bringing good values and what you call social norms and moral norms. And therefore, I really see this like a milestone, our meeting here today, and I would like really to thank you, Ambassador, for leading us.
MODERATOR: So with that, we will take a few questions here in D.C. For the callers that are joining us internationally via our hub, if you would like to join in the queue to ask a question, I ask that you press * and then 1. We’ll take a few questions here in D.C. and then we’ll shoot to you, so please begin to queue up if you’re interested in asking questions.
With that, we’ll take the first question here.
QUESTION: Good morning and thank you for standing up for us women. We are the victims. You are the one standing up for us. Thank you for what you’re doing. I’m from Mali. You did not mention the statistics in Mali. And you brought an imam. Why you did not bring a priest? Because my friends who are Christian are also circumcised. Why this discrepancy? You should brought also a priest to tell us about the view – the Christian view on female circumcision or fibrillation.
So I don’t know if I have a question, just to salute you for what you’re doing for us. We used to say that we believe in the duality – I’m a Muslim, by the way. We used to say that we believe in the duality of humankind, so we have to circumcise. We take a tiny bit of the clitoris of female and also we cut the male, so to make the female fully female and the male fully male. So we believe in that, but because of Islam, we stopped that. We know that circumcision is ancestral practices that Islam and Christianity adjust themselves to. It’s not religious wheel or religious practices. It’s ancestral African practices. It started from Egypt to the rest of Africa. I know that in the Mandingo land in Mali during the empire time, when the male decided to have a male circumcision, the woman was very strong. They also decided to have a circumcision for – female circumcision. So this is a tradition in – enough going on in Africa before even Islam.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, thank you for that, and it just says that much more about how difficult it is to change traditional norms no matter in whichever way they are being promoted.
MS. MELCHING: We also are – we are in Mali now. We are in 38 communities in collaboration with USAID. And I was just visiting there two weeks ago, and the women had been to a declaration in Senegal, and they told me this was amazing for them because they didn’t realize that this was possible. And suddenly, it became a choice that they had gone through human rights, they were out with their neighbors and their other villages, in the other villages discussing the human rights.
And I said to them, “Well, I don’t know if this would be possible in Mali because it’s such a deeply entrenched practice in Mali; the statistics are very high in Mali.” And they all looked at me and they said, “Yes, it is possible here, too.” We can do the same thing. If we get our extended family on board, if we all come together and decide that this practice really is not helping us to achieve our goals of health and well-being and peace for the future, we will do the same thing. So I have lots of hope for Mali, and hopefully with the USAID supporting us, we may actually see many more declarations in Mali.
There have been some other declarations. Other NGOs are working. (Inaudible) in Mali is doing excellent work in communities, working with communities. And we are going to be collaborating in the years to come. So there is much hope for Mali, I think.
IMAM MAGID: Absolutely.
MODERATOR: All right. In the back. I ask that you please just state your name and your news organization.
QUESTION: My name is Thomas Gorguissian. I am with Al Tahir Egyptian daily newspaper. My question mainly is about – after all these years, I mean, for 20 years, I am hearing about this and I have a lot of friends who are activists in this part – in Egypt, and working in this field, and we support them, I support them. Is the abandonment increasing, or is it the same as a ratio? I mean – and is still people are practicing, from your perspective in working in this field – for what reason if the region is saying no, if the health issue is saying no, if the gender – gender-wise and human rights-wise, it’s no? And this is the second part.
And the third question is: I saw in the paper that you are distributing – I mean, part of this – I don’t know if it’s mentioned, Iraq, how it has moved from Africa to Iraq.
MS. MELCHING: How it – I’ll start with your last question. Most of the other countries that practice FGC actually started in your own country. This practice, we believe, started 2,200 years ago in Egypt, and then spread down across to West Africa. And so you have a country like Yemen which got this practice from Egypt. And from Yemen, then it moved on to other countries as people moved out of Yemen and migrated to India and other countries. They took the practice with them. So you see that many of the countries who do now practice FGC originally started in Egypt.
And yes, there – people are still practicing. Why, you say, do they still practice? And we believe it’s because it is so deeply entrenched, and being a social norm – when I say social norm, what do I mean? I mean that it is a practice that has very strong sanctions if you do not do it. It’s not just any practice that happens that it does not depend on what I do, doesn’t depend on what you do. If I do not cut my daughter, she will not have a chance for good marriage. And as a mother, you can understand that if your daughter may not have a chance to marry a respectable person, you will say, look, I’m not sure if other people are really ending or not. And so you may decide to continue, knowing that this has been a criteria for the past hundred years, and that still in some of these communities, it is still very highly valued.
This has been one of the major problems. It’s only when people come together and make the decision together and say this will no longer be a criteria, we will no longer expect it – and then when they put sanctions, new sanctions so they become – it becomes a new social norm not to practice and there will be sanctions if you do – but community sanctions. And this is what we’re saying. The law does not always do that, but a community law will do that. It’s through the community decision saying we will put sanctions on you if you do this. And how is that happen? We now have – when these type of things happen, the community itself is the one that goes and denounces. We’re not saying it doesn’t still happen. It does. And we’re not saying that there aren’t cases where communities have declared where you actually have cases, because a lot of times, there will be a neighborhood in a community and they intermarry in other places. They don’t intermarry within the social network that abandoned, you see?
So you have to reach out to all those different networks. It’s long work and it’s – it all depends upon education, upon amazing, courageous people at the grassroots. I’m not doing this movement. It’s the people in the villages that have done amazing work, going from village to village. One woman who lost her two daughters to FGC has been to 148 villages telling people about that and saying we have to come together, we have to stop. And she’s had amazing success. But they’re the ones who are doing this work, and it’s when we can reach more and more people that we will have, finally, an end to this practice.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: And if I could just add, I think that really is the crux of the issue, that you go to so many places where educational levels are very, very low; there aren’t rights awareness programs, health programs. And you not only need that, which was the genesis of so much of the work of Tostan, but you need to have it in a concerted way where it can touch large, large numbers of people. And while this movement is going forward, making a difference – you’ve got more and more declarations of renunciation – you still have so many places that haven’t even been touched by it. So I think that’s the reality we still confront.
QUESTION: Just a clarification --
MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone.
QUESTION: Just a clarification, because I asked at the beginning, do you see any decline or you don’t see it?
MS. MELCHING: We are seeing decline. We had an evaluation done of the villages that declared 10 years ago, and they said that over 70 percent of people who had abandoned 10 years ago actually did abandon after 10 years. So this was what really reinforced the work we’re doing and led us – and particularly UNICEF, which has been behind this movement from the very beginning and has been very helpful in organizing seminars around these workshops to get people aware of this new approach, really, to ending FGC. And they wanted to be sure that this was really leading to results, and so this helped us.
Now the DHS studies are coming out, and we believe that when the question is asked, “Are you going to cut your daughters in the next – your daughters who are under 10,” we believe there will be a real decline in the number of women who are going to cut their daughters. We won’t see on the DHS studies the decline in the country because it’s only girls 15 and older, but I think that we will be seeing decline in many countries. There have been much work around FGC in the past with other organizations also, and much international information around the problems relating to health issues that were never really available before. And as people become more aware that this really is a health issue, they are starting to abandon in many places.
MODERATOR: Imam, would you –
IMAM MAGID: I would like to say that is declining because of the effort done by also religious leader to speak against it. I would like to just stress that’s the issue that – I’m from a country where there’s Christians and Muslims, but unfortunately practiced more by Muslims than by Christian. We have to admit that. And therefore, to have the imam being on board is really – is – was very crucial. I can tell you that the young generation now who have female children, they’re not doing it in many places. And therefore, social media, Facebook, using all of these tools to educate young people, if the young couple make a pledge in Sudan, in Mali, and in Senegal, you will see it really declining very fast.
MODERATOR: We are – before we take any more questions here, we’re going to go to Carrie Denver from our hub. Carrie, are you there?
MODERATOR: Yes, I am. Thank you, Andrea. We have callers connected in our U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, and also at the Ugandan Media Centre. And I just want to remind callers to press *1 when they want to enter the question queue, and to please state your name and affiliation before you ask your question.
We’re going to start today with our Embassy in Dakar, Senegal. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Aisha Dabo. I am working for the African Press Agency. Basically, I have two questions. Thanks to you for the advocating that you’ve been doing, especially in Western – West Africa. There have been a lot of declarations and women have abandoned, and some have been trained in income-generating activities. But there is a – kind of a tendency of these women going back – female circumcises going back and doing it, especially to babies, because if there is a the mother that brings a child, a baby, to be circumcised, it can just be done in a room and no one will be aware of that. So how are you people going about that? Because there have been people who will declare and then be doing it underground.
My second question is: There have been few laws, especially when it comes to FGMC – cross border FGMC practices in West Africa. How are you working with government in these countries for the effective implementations of these laws? Thank you.
MS. MELCHING: Thank you, Aisha. We, as you notice and I said, we do not specifically target cutters in our program because we found that most of the evaluations done on programs that just address cutters and giving them other projects, income generating activities, really has not worked for the exact reasons that you have said. That often, what they’ve found, what the evaluators found, is that those cutters who then had projects, when the projects were over went back or were not – they were older, and they could not really carry through with these projects. And in general, the population council that did most of these evaluations was highly recommending that this not be the methodology or the strategy to use for ending FGC.
Our strategy at Toston, we believe very strongly, that it is really through the community, the entire community, women and men and adolescents – before we were doing our program just with adolescents, and the – I’m sorry, with adults – and they were making declarations to end FGC. But the adolescents came along and said we want to be cut because our sisters were cut. And we found that if we started doing the program with adolescents also, they suddenly started realizing, oh my goodness, we do have human rights, we now understand what this is. They didn’t understand, really, before.
So we find that it’s really the community approach, with everyone involved – and the cutters. When that happens, then when the cutter does go back, as you say – and that has happened – in one of the communities in Tambacounda – in the region of Tambacounda – a cutter actually went through a declaration and then she went to another village that wasn’t part of the declaration and she cut three girls. And who denounced her? It was the community itself from which she came. And they said, “You have dishonored us because you have made this declaration and you went against it.” And they went to the local authorities and she was in prison because of this, and then declared she would never do it again. This sent out a very strong message. So we believe this is the right way to go about doing this. It’s so important that the whole community be involved.
Secondly, you ask about cross-border. We understand that this is so important. It’s a really good point that you make. And it also brings me to say that there were 17 villages from Mali who declared an end to FGC through declarations that were held in Senegal. But because the family lived – and the same family lived over in Mali, they came and were part of the declaration in Senegal. There is no law in Mali, that’s true. At this particular time, we are concerned that a law passed in Mali might actually do more harm than good. I think this is what people are afraid of. There would be such a huge backlash because, as you know – and we have a woman sitting here from Mali – it is so deeply entrenched, and there has not been this critical mass of people leading the movement to end the program – or the practice that there have been backlashes against ending of especially a law or a family code.
So it is a problem in terms of working in Guinea-Bissau, where there is not a law. But again, we’re trying to build critical mass among the population so that it will be the people themselves who put pressure on the government to pass these laws. And once that happens, we believe, the government will be more likely to pass the law because quite frankly, it’s a political issue.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, and enforcing it, that was part of the question. How do governments enforce these laws? And I think what Molly has been saying is, when you have a critical mass, it gives that much more energy and possibility to the enforcement, and then to support the kinds of programs that continue the movement, making progress.
I remember, years ago, when Senegal first passed its law. And Secretary Clinton was then first lady, and she reached out to the president of the country to thank him for his leadership. And his response was this was because of the villagers. And I have never forgotten that, because he was reacting to a movement that was moving across the country and beginning to have very positive impacts that then the government joined.
MS. MELCHING: Absolutely.
IMAM MAGID: Yeah. And one other thing that I have seen also, if the Imam was turned up before the congregation and he says, “I have daughters and I did not do this to them,” that sent a strong message because people say, “Are you asking us not to do our daughters; how about your own daughters?” And it happened – myself by the way, I have five daughters. I have no boys. (Laughter.) And when I was visiting my family – my cousin, my sisters, and so forth who have children – daughters, they are not – they have not done this to them, and then they have established a kind of a moral pressure on other members of the family. For it begins with the individual, taking a stand and the issue, because the responsibility is of the parents to say no to the practice.
MODERAROT: Kerry, do you have other questions?
OPERATOR: Senegal, you’re line is still open. Do you have any other questions on your side?
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. My name is Inoh Ndri. I work for West Africa Democracy Radio. And I just want to know what type of means you have to verify that the practice is really abandoned after the public declarations of abandonment, because of my own experience in Central Ivory Coast, the same women continue to practice. The practice – they include those or sent convoys of women nightly or secretly to other areas where the practice is still prevailing. Also to the imam, how are you making sure that other imams are joining the fight? Because in Ivory Coast, for example, many imams encourage women to send their daughters to the same place, a secret place inside the forest, to practice what you are blaming.
IMAM MAGID: It’s very interesting. Actually, I was thinking before I was – I arrived here, when I was coming, to say what can I do today after the Ambassador have called us to – there’s another call, and Molly is the champion in this issue. What can we do to support this? And I thought maybe you can create an imam for abandoned FGC. (Laughter.) And therefore, stay tuned. There will be a website for that – (laughter) – and we’ll have imam to sign into it.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: So you have it here, the declaration of a new organization. (Laughter.)
IMAM MAGID: Yes, yes.
MS. MELCHING: So important –
IMAM MAGID: Yeah. Supporting her.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Very good.
MS. MELCHING: Well, supporting the women --
IMAM MAGID: And support the work of the --
MS. MELCHING: -- and it’s part of the communities that have the courage and the --
IMAM MAGID: Yes.
MS. MELCHING: -- to stand up and do this. It would be an amazing support to them at this time.
IMAM MAGID: Excellent. Absolutely, yes.
MS. MELCHING: And again, you said that women have laid down their blades. So I assume you’re talking about a cutter’s declaration to abandon, and I come back again, and say that it cannot be just the cutters that abandoned. You have to go from the demand side of this. You have to say that as long as the communities still think that it is necessary for good marriage, you will never end this practice. It has got to be the communities, all members of the communities, not just the cutters, who come together and say we’re going to abandon this or you will continuously have women who turn back, and do it because the demand is there. When the demand stops, there will be no one else to cut.
And so, we want to emphasize that this has been our experience in Senegal and again, as I said, you said what proof? We did have a very in-depth evaluation done by probably the best known evaluators around FGC, because it’s a very difficult practice to evaluate the abandonment of, as you can imagine because of ethical issues. But we have the best known one who does the – the organization that does the DHS studies. And they were very, very surprised when they saw the very high level – over 70 percent. It’s the first time in history that we have such a high level of abandonment. It was after this moment that UNICEF became very, very engaged – on a very high level started holding meetings, USAID became engaged. They’d been – not that they hadn’t, but it became clearer and clearer that this community-led approach, this community powered approach, is the one that can lead to the abandonment of this tradition, and I must add again, many others also.
Other issues – domestic violence, child marriage – we’re up against many issues that can be solved through the community coming together through community education, empowerment, and decision making. It’s so critical.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take a few questions here and then we’ll shoot back to our hub. And just a reminder to state your name and your news organization.
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Linord Modou with the Voice of America television. As it was mentioned earlier, female genital cutting is practiced by diverse cultures, diverse religious background. But I’m curious to find out why it’s so – there is this general perception that it’s very popular among the Muslim communities. I’m just curious.
IMAM MAGID: I have to speak from the responsibility as an imam. I’m – I want it to be abandoned in all communities, but I have to speak to my community. And I know that we practice in the Muslim community, and around the globe there’s many Muslim community who have imams and some people will support this kind of practice. Before I have address my area of influence, I have a hope to indeed in all communities, but they have to address it in the community that I’m belong to.
The other things that the – because some people have different literature in support of this some religious. And therefore, the greatest callers of Egypt, like Dr. Salim al-Awa, who has written a book on this, now translated in English, have addressed this issue so that anyone who would like to use a religious argument to justify it will say there’s no justification for this.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: If I can add, I – the use of the term “popular,” I think, is a little disarming because – that’s what you said, why is it so popular?
QUESTION: No, I said it’s the perception.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: The perception of popularity. And I think goes back to what Molly said about how deeply entrenched this is, and there are sanctions if you do not behave in a way that is the predominant mode of behavior. And one of the things that was instructive to me, as someone who saw what was happening as the movement was taking hold, was the way women, younger women who were going through the process that she described of a human rights education, health education, democracy education, when asked how do we use this, I mean, how can this help us, the response was well, what do you want to see changed in your life? The answer was, “We don’t want this practice to be occurring.”
And they needed a tool which then became community awareness and discussion and the kind of synergy that takes place as people come together understanding how something does have very negative consequences even though it’s deeply entrenched, that change begins to come. But certainly, if the choice were given, and so many have told me – African women had they had the choice, they would not have embraced it as a choice.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Iftikhar Hussain, work for Voice of America (inaudible) region service, Pakistan and Afghanistan. My question is – I joined late discussion – how the United States is involved in improving the conditions of women in Pakistan. Well known organization just released yesterday a report saying that more than 8,000 women – violence were reported against them, and more than 1,500 were raped, and around 1,000 committed suicide, and these are just horrific figures. We do understand that apart from those political things from Washington and Islamabad, a lot is going on, but what specifically how the U.S. is engaging was vis-à-vis the condition of women is involved in Pakistan?
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I think that this is a very important question, and it’s one that we have been engaged on in many different ways. In fact we had a review in my office just two days ago on a range of issues to positively impact the women in Pakistan because the human development numbers, as you well know and sort of hinted at, are extremely low in terms of education and literacy and economic opportunity. And certainly, while violence against women is a global scourge, it is a terrible scourge in many parts of the country.
And so what we have in place are large numbers of programs, particularly through USAID, focused on these areas. There has been a rather significantly financially endowed program run through a Pakistan NGO to focus on access to justice issues and issues specifically focused on violence against women in terms of support for protective shelters, but also addressing the justice system and the recourse. So the problem is a major challenge, but it is not one that is not being addressed in ways that we are doing it, and certainly other countries’ development agencies are engaged as well. So it is one that certainly has our attention.
And we have a – when we were going through the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, there was a specific working group focused on empowering women. And several of the projects that came out of that had to do with economic empowerment because where you can have economic empowerment, you see a decrease in violence against women and you see a betterment of life across the board. And then there – the government has been supporting the – the Benazir Bhutto income generation support program, which goes only to women, and the United States has been significantly supportive of that as well.
MODERATOR: Kerry (ph), do you – do we have another question from the hub?
OPERATOR: I don’t have any questions in the queue right now. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you again for what you are doing. I’m really impressed because men are engaged now, because men used to not be informed at all in discussing about this matter. It was women among women.
So my question is that we used to have some practices, like to learn how to – the medicinal, the herbal – herbs. During that four weeks of this female circumcision period time, while there is a retreat, the family used to go to different village, they would learn a lot from traditions, not only how to be a mother, to become a wife, to know about herbs to treat some kind of diseases, because as a consultant to UNICEF, I had a booklet on these kind of practices in Africa. And you said it’s predominant in Islamic society. I would say no, it’s predominant where male genital circumcision is – exists. Where male are circumcised, that’s where mostly female are circumcised. There is no religious value in that. It’s African tradition. So we know that in Africa. We know that where you circumcise male, that’s – in those country, female are circumcised.
If you go to the south, where male are not circumcised, there are no female circumcision. When you go to east, like Ethiopia, it’s different. It’s a mutilation. It’s different than the circumcision we have in West Africa. So there are many type of female mutilation, genital mutilation in different area of Africa.
So my point is those practices we used to have, those traditional value to teach women how to be a wife, a woman, to know about herbs, to – lot of societal practices would – what do you do about those now? If we don’t circumcise, fine. So who is teaching us those value nowadays?
MS. MELCHING: I just would say that when the first community stood up, which is a Bambara community from Mali, that was the first question I asked them. I said, “Would you like to do alternative rites?” And they said, oh, that’s a romantic notion of – that you have, because we haven’t been doing those rites for many, many, many years. And as we went around, we found that there not many groups around Africa – if you look at how – who are doing those rites to this day, there are very few. We found some in Kenya and some in the Gambia – some in Malia, but not many. And the women told me that much of the rites were about how to get women to obey men, how they must learn to be patient.
(Inaudible) is one of the most important values, being patient even if your husband beats you, if he – if you have to go through the most horrible of – you have to accept and be patient. And they said, “You know what? We don’t want our daughters to go through that anymore. We want them to go through a human rights program. We want them to be empowered. We don’t want them to lose their religion. We don’t want them to – we want them to maintain our values.” A Bambara woman, who is the leader of the group, she said, “People said to me, ‘I’m losing my culture, my tradition.’ And I said, ‘Today, I am more Bambara than I have ever been. Why? Because my values are values of health and peace and unity and well-being, and that’s what we are doing in our community.’” That tradition should not be an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And what is the end? The end are the moral norms. And if the tradition is not leading to that, we must abandon them.
However, we do have traditional programs in our program, and they teach traditional massage, they teach the traditional medicines that are being used that can heal as much as – we are very careful because you have to be very careful about using leaves and plants, and you have to know how to do the right amount because we’ve had problems with that also. So – but we do have a traditional healer who goes around to our communities, who works with people on maintaining positive traditions. We believe – and I think this is why our program has so much success. We’re very respectful of the culture, of the values, and the language, and the words that you use. For example, we never showed pictures. We didn’t have to. We didn’t have to show girls with blood, and knives, and – we didn’t have to do that.
We’re very respectful. People – these are not bad people. These are wonderful mothers who love their daughters. They are not – this is – I – this – I – mutilation means cutting with the intention of harming. Look it up in the dictionary. It means cutting with the intention of harming. How many of you think that an African mother wants to harm her daughter? She does not. She wants her daughter to succeed. That is why she cut before and that is why she is now ending. She has the information she needs to make the right decisions. And this is what is happening. We need to get this information out to women – this is so important – and to men. As you said, men are – didn’t – they said – they say to me, “I just didn’t know. We didn’t know. The women hid this from us.” You said that. This information is what is critical. And when it happens, there – you will see enormous change, and allowing people to come together in consensus deciding to abandon and choosing health, choosing well-being, choosing peace and unity. We don’t use methods that divide people. That is what African culture is about. That is the beauty of African culture.
If you use methods that divide people, like you tell a girl to just run away, that may solve that one girl’s problem, but what about all the other girls who are left behind? But if you can get the whole community, the whole social network, to come together in unity to make this decision, there’s where you are respecting African culture. It is the decision of the whole group. And this is what we as Westerners need to learn from Africa.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, and I think it’s also giving the young women an opportunity to express – and the women to express – how they have felt, what they are undergoing in terms of health and pain, and then to have everybody listen to that and say, “We don’t want you to go through that.” And that leads to the declaration of abandonment. But it is that opportunity to be able to engage a process where you’ll be listened to.
IMAM MAGID: Yeah. All I guess to say regarding the customs you are talking about, because I’m from Sudan and I know that we practice for a while in Sudan, the whole idea, the notion of what they call it female circumcision, which is wiseco, female circumcision, is to have the woman become submissive. And the woman doesn’t have desire, and it is there to fulfill the desire of her husband. And therefore, that notion of teaching her at the time of circumcision is actually stealing her away – taking away her rights as a human being and in being able to express her feeling and have needs like in – like her husband to be – have – will have need.
And the issue that I would like to say that – of teaching people values of marriage, I would suggested to the imam, and we agreed on that when I was in Darfur, is to infuse the idea of premarital counseling. And we do that now in our mosque in America, where we teach a person, a husband to be and a wife to be – their rights, their mutual rights, and the respect of the marriage institutions, and how to fulfill the needs of one another, because women have been used to fulfill all of the need of men. And that’s why they circumcise them or they are doing the cutting of so-called circumcision.
MODERATOR: With that, unfortunately, we’re going to have to end. Thank you all very much for joining us. I’ll try and get the transcript to you as soon as possible.
IMAM MAGID: Thank you.
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