Thu, 20 Nov 2003 Feature Article

Traditions Die Hard: Can Arrests Stop Female Genital Mutilation?

By Press
Traditions Die Hard: Can Arrests Stop Female Genital Mutilation?

Lauren Stephens-Davidowitz for Chronicle On September 20 of this year, police officers in Wa, in the Upper West Region, arrested Fefe Dari for practicing female genital mutilation (FGM) on three girls. Two days later, the 47-year-old woman pleaded guilty in the Wa Circuit Court and received a prison sentence of five years. She is currently serving this sentence in Tamale's prison.

A 1999 study by the Population Impact Project at the University of Ghana estimated that 69.1% of women in the Wa district have had their genitals cut. Despite this reported prevalence, authorities have arrested less than 10 people since FGM became illegal in 1994. Dari's arrest was the first in the Upper West.

If Dari's arrest is an attempt to stop FGM, it raises questions about how to effectively combat the practice: Why have there been so few arrests? Is it fair to arrest someone like Dari? And, finally, what is the impact of Dari's arrest on her community? Dari worked as a farmer in Billi-uu, a remote village outside of Wa. She and her nephew, Kwesi Nabiaba, farmed maize, millets, yam and groundnuts.

Dari was married and widowed twice. After her first husband died, she married his junior brother who died four years ago. Dari has six children - three girls and three boys. At the time of her arrest, she and her three youngest children (ages three, five and nine years) lived with Nabiaba.

On September 19, Florence Ali, president of the Ghanaian Association for Women's Welfare (GAWW), a non-governmental organization, was in Wa conducting sensitization workshops on FGM. She received a report from a nurse at Loggu Health Center, on the outskirts of Wa, that Dari had performed FGM on three girls in Billi-uu on September 13. Someone from the village had informed the nurse of the mutilation, prompting her to travel to Billi-uu and verify the accusation.

The girls - who were three weeks, one and a half years, and five years old at the time - are Dari's relations. The two oldest are her nieces and the baby is Dari's granddaughter, the first child of her 16-year-old daughter.

After receiving the report from the nurse, Ali notified the Women and Juvenile Unit (WAJU) of Ghana Police Services in Wa. The next day, Ali and police officers traveled to Loggu where they questioned Dari, who was there for the market day.

According to Ali, Dari denied having performed the acts, saying that someone from another village was to blame. When the police told Dari they would detain her until she produced the real perpetrator, she confessed to the crime.

Ali and the police went to Billi-uu. They walked the ten kilometers from Loggu to the village, which is not accessible by car. They found the girls and brought them to Wa District Hospital for treatment. "[The doctors] were really very scared because they had lost a lot of blood," remembers Ali.

On September 22, Dari pleaded guilty to "intentionally and unlawfully infibulating the whole part of the labia minora and clitoris" of all three girls. The maximum punishment for performing FGM is three years. Because Dari circumcised three girls, Judge Alhaji Mohammed Ahmed Mustapha sentenced her to five years of hard labor.

Residents of Billi-uu are angry with the nurses at Loggu Health Center for Dari's imprisonment. They are angry because a member of their community was taken away. They know that it was one of their own - a villager - who reported Dari's acts to the nurses, but the authorities are protecting that person's identity. The blame, therefore, falls on the nurses.

Hawa Yakubu, a nurse at the clinic, says that the villagers' hostility towards them has affected their work. "Since the arrest, we haven't been [to Billi-uu] because we are afraid," Yakubu explains. "We're supposed to go for immunization programs, but we do not go. A man goes for us."

The nurses' experience illustrates one reason why the police have arrested so few people for practicing FGM. People fear reporting cases to them.

Daniel Dorledols, the public relations officer for the Ghana Police Service in Wa, stresses the importance of keeping an informant anonymous. "If the informant's identity is known," he explains, "the person could be attacked." But is a guarantee of anonymity enough? An officer at WAJU in Wa, who wishes to remain anonymous, recommends that informants receive protection and a financial reward for their information.

Given the lack of resources to conduct intensive investigations, the police often rely on informants to catch perpetrators of FGM. "The onus is on the community members to report," says Marian Tackie, Executive Director of the National Council on Women and Development, which is a department of the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs.

This need for insiders is a result of the law forcing FGM to be carried out underground. Yakubu, the nurse at Loggu Health Clinic, explains one tactic people use to keep FGM secret. "They used to let the child grow [older before being circumcised]," she says. "But now that we've been telling them [that it's illegal], they do it when [the child is] an infant, so no one will notice."

Dorledols, of the Ghana Police Service in Wa, disagrees with Tackie on the effects of the law banning FGM. He argues that the law, combined with public education campaigns, has led to the near elimination of the practice in his region. He says there have been so few arrests because there are so few people performing FGM.

Pat Sutinga, a midwife and nurse in the children's ward of Wa District Hospital, agrees that there has been a reduction in the number of FGM cases. She says that after a mother gives birth to a girl in the hospital, the nurses tell her that FGM is harmful and illegal. (A poster that reads "Stop Female Genital Cutting" and shows a young girl with a bleeding vagina is prominently displayed on the wall of the ward.) When the babies come back for post-natal exams, she says they have not been circumcised.

Like Dorledols, Sutinga believes that public sensitization and the threat of imprisonment have deterred some parents from having their daughters cut. However, Sutinga admits that she is not able to examine all girls in the region. Only nine percent of women in the northern regions give birth with the assistance of a trained health care worker, according to the United Nations Population Fund. If they do give birth in the hospital, most villagers receive their post-natal care in local clinics, out of Sutinga's reach. However, she says, the clinics send monthly reports to the hospital without ever mentioning FGM.

"I agree that [Fefe Dari] did not follow the law," says her nephew, Kwesi Nabiaba. "But it is that she was ignorant of the law."

In court, that logic was the basis of Dari's defense. She pleaded guilty, but added that she did not know that FGM was a crime.

Dari's critics argue that she could not have been ignorant of the law. Dorledols, Yakubu and Ali contend that people in the village know the law. They point to the example of the Billi-uu resident who reported Dari. "Because there was an informant from the village," explains Dorledols, "that means that awareness was created."

Nabiaba disagrees: "The whole village was in darkness," he says.

Meetings with ordinary people in the region support Dari's claim of ignorance. Waiting for a lorry at Loggu, two women from nearby Bintanga said they had only heard of the law after Dari's arrest. "People were not aware of the existence of that law," added Mohammed Seidu, a driver at the Wa bus station.

Tackie argues that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." "Once there is a law - whether you know about it or not, it is now a criminal offence," she says. "Just like any criminal offence, you can be prosecuted, whether you are ignorant or not, because you are inflicting something which is harmful on another human being."

For others, it is not that simple. The law must be enforced, says Ali, "but I kind of pitied [Dari] because it may be true that she really didn't know the law existed."

Whether or not Dari was informed of the law, her arrest raises another question: Is arresting people necessary to curb FGM or is educating people on its harmful effects sufficient?

Ali says that stopping FGM is "a question of education." "Everywhere I go," she explains, "[villagers] don't really know what is done to the woman [when they are cut]. There was one instance when [a woman] said to me, 'You see, they have been telling us that it isn't good, we shouldn't do it, but we don't really know why. But now that you have taken your time to tell us why, now I can also educate my clients and try to dissuade them from practising it.'"

Most people interviewed felt educating people about the harmful effects of FGM must go hand in hand with informing them about the law. And they argue that the arrest of someone who performs FGM deters others from doing it as well. In fact, Ali and Tackie hope to expand the scope of the law. They sent a memo to the Attorney General asking that the law include punishments for the girl's parents and other community members who participate in the ceremony.

It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to discern the effects of Dari's arrest on the prevalence of FGM in Billi-uu. Nabiaba, Dari's nephew, says that the practice was common before the arrest, but it has stopped since. "The arrest has scared people because there is a likelihood that people will report you," he explains.

But it seems highly improbable that a custom would be entirely eliminated in six weeks. "Traditions die hard," says Tackie.

Nabiaba does admit that the practice is engrained in their culture. Asked why villagers perform FGM, he said: "It's something practised by their great-grandfathers, their fathers. I don't know why they do it, but it is a tradition."

Nabiaba has two wives and says that both of them have had their genitals cut. All four of his children are boys but if he had a daughter, he adds, he would have her cut.

If Dari's arrest has deterred others from performing FGM, it achieved its desired effect. But there's also the chance it has forced the practice even farther underground and people like Nabiaba are too scared to admit that residents of Billi-uu still practise FGM.

There are some effects of Dari's arrest that are easier to measure.

Nabiaba says that since the arrest he has been "confused" and has lost his appetite. He currently cares for Dari's three young boys, who are also suffering. "They are at home weeping everyday," he says, "and I don't know what to do."