US: Health expert discusses dangers of female circumcision

24 April 2008

Edna Adan Ismail is an accomplished woman. She is a nurse, midwife, philanthropist, and the former foreign minister of Somaliland, a small country on the eastern Horn of Africa that won independence from Somalia in 1991. She is also one of the world’s most outspoken opponents of ritual female circumcision, or as she calls it, “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM).

Friday in Athens she addressed Ohio University’s African Health Summit with a keynote speech on the issue.

“For 32 years I have fought this because I have been a victim,” Ismail told an audience in Bentley Hall. “Someone loved me enough to ‘purify’ me, but also because I am a midwife, and I have to get a baby out of that part of the body.”

According to Ismail, the traditional styles of female circumcision used in Somaliland and other nearby countries puts young girls and women at risk of severe pain, infections, scarring, hemorrhaging and complications during labor that often require surgeries that cause further damage to the female genitals.

Ismail and her colleagues recently conducted a survey on FGM with female patients at the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, which Ismail founded in Somaliland’s capital city of Hargeisa with funds from her U.N. pension and other assets. The purpose of the study was to determine if the anti-FGM movement, which Ismail was instrumental in starting during the late 1970s, had achieved its goal of reducing the amount of ritual female circumcisions in Somaliland.

For Ismail, the results of the survey were disheartening.

Ninety-seven percent of 3,968 women who participated in the survey had undergone FGM, and most of them were circumcised between the ages of 6 and 10, Ismail said.

Women who gave birth to daughters in Ismail’s maternity ward were counseled on the dangers of having their new child circumcised, and 37 percent of those women agreed to avoid the practice. Of the 62 percent of new mothers who said they would have their daughter circumcised, 20 percent cited religious reasons, and 74 percent simply wished to carry on the tradition.

Islam is the dominant religious force in cultures that perform female circumcisions in countries such as Somaliland, Djibouti, Somalia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but Ismail said that FGM has nothing to do with Islam, and women are not circumcised in many other Muslim cultures.

“God doesn’t create impurities,” Ismail said of the external parts of the vagina that are removed during FGM. “This is something that should be talked about in mosques.”

FGM is a social requirement, Ismail said, and women who aren’t circumcised can become “social outcasts” who are considered unsuitable for marriage.

Ismail said that the results of her survey are proof that holding international conferences, summits and educational seminars on FGM has not reduced the number of instances of FGM in Somaliland. She said she plans to move her campaign from conference rooms and hospitals to the actual communities and neighborhoods where FGM is culturally imbedded. Community matriarchs and Islamic religious leaders known as Imams have the authority to change or discontinue the tradition of performing female circumcision, and Ismail hopes that modern medical information can sway their opinions on the issue.

Ismail told medical students in the audience that fighting FGM and providing health care for women in Africa is a fulfilling way to make a difference with their skills. She also called on African students and professionals in America to return to their homelands and help bring health care, clean water, sanitation and education to the peoples of Africa.

“You are privileged; you have an education. You must have been given that privilege for a reason,” Ismail said. “Come home, find out… and by your presence, give hope, give love.”

Ismail was invited to speak at OU by Steve Howard, OU African Studies Center director, and School of Health Sciences Director Matthew Adeyanju. Both professors recently visited her at the Edna Aden Maternity Hospital in Somaliland.

Ismail was scheduled to tour O’Bleness Memorial Hospital and meet with the Athens Birth Circle, a community support group for expectant parents, before leaving Athens.

“I hope that members of our community have a chance to interact with her and learn what commitment can do for people’s health under difficult political circumstances,” Howard said in a press release for the African Health Summit.

Source: The Athens News - 21 April 2008

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