Hannah Wettig: FGM makes all society ill

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik, edited by William Hanna. An informative interview with Hannah Wettig, Project Manager at the association Stop FGMMiddle East. I would like to thank her for her time and her detailed answers to my questions. It is important to point out that FGM is a severe violation of childrens and womens rights and that FGM concerns us all as society all over the world. We have to expose how FGM is justified and even identified with religion. However, FGM remains a brutal tradition destroying women’s lives. We have to remove the taboo and start talking about it because we all need an FGM-free world.
Milena Rampoldi: Why is it so important to struggle against FGM in all regions where this brutal tradition is still practised?
Hannah Wettig: First all, there is no region in which the practice has been completely abolished. However, according to the last UNICEF statistics in many African countries there is a strong decrease in the age group 0-14. But these figures are not really reliable. A problem of the data collection is that in the meantime in the majority of these countries FGM has been liable to persecution. The parents are interviewed for these surveys. A further complication is that the government executes these large-scale stories. So you have to count on the fact that actions liable to persecution are not admitted.   
     The abolition is not only essential because FGM is a brutal abuse of children and a severe violation of human rights, but also because of its consequences on the society as a whole. On one hand, FGM is connected with severe health risks. In Africa where type III (the complete amputation of the visible clitoris and the external labia) is practised, the operation often causes the child’ death. Mothers suffer extensively during parturition. Some mothers also die during parturition because of FGM.  Also in the region where we work (in Iraq and Iran) the“lighter” type II has severe consequences like incontinence, frequent infections, and sexuality limitation.
     Where sexual relations are not satisfying, aggressions and neurosis arise. Wilhelm Reich taught us that without having FGM in mind. One of our partners, Osman Mahmoudi, has analysed this aspect for Iran: he has not just asked women, but also their husbands about their sexual and psychological wellbeing. And he was able to prove that husbands with wives who have been victims of FGM not only had an essentially worse sexual life and suffer from different deficiencies like impotence, but that they also suffer psychologically, for example because they have more depressions than husbands with wives who have not been circumcised. Of course, this applies also to women, what about that other research studies were conducted in the past. Osman Mahmoudi shows for the first time that FGM makes women and men ill.
MR: How important are information campaigns about FGM in Europe and why?
HW: On one hand, the women migrants coming from countries where FGM is practised are citizens of our society, and we have a responsibility to protect them and especially their children. However, we have to consequently deal with the problem in Europe because by now there are setbacks by re-emigration from Europe or immigration by marriage. Precisely: in Iraq-Kurdistan we were able to strongly reduce the practice. It is rare that somebody openly supports the practice. Young men and their mothers do not request anymore from a bride to be subject to FGM. However, Iraqi-Kurd men living in Europe look for a wife in their country of origin who has to be circumcised. So the mothers of these girls say: “Ok, my daughter can marry, but she can marry better if she is circumcised.”
     I heard similar stories from an organisation working in Africa. A colleague even told me about a village where relatives living in Great Britain wanted to build a school only under the condition that girls have to be circumcised again.
MR: What does FGM mean to you personally as woman and as human rightsactivist?
HW: I have been dealing with the Middle East Region for 20 years now and have lived there for many years. Therefore, I am particularly keen on changing the conditions there and on supporting people who try to change their miserable living conditions characterised by continuous crisis and wars. I do not refer to the economic conditions, but to the oppression, narrowness and total control of the individual. Women suffer from a threefold, fourfold, and fivefold oppression – and FGM is a decisive part of it. Even if FGM is not the only point, FGM is a matter through which you can deal with many problems in society: sexuality, love, respect in the family, and the right to their own body. 
MR: Which are the main objectives of Stop FGM Mideast?
HW: The long-term objective is the abolition of FGM in Asia.
However, when we started our campaign, we had to disclose the fact that FGM also exists without Africa. At that time, almost nobody knew about it or the information was ignored. At the beginning, we collected all we could find and made in accessible to the public and put it on our website archive. We talked to journalists and had a regular exchange with UNICEF.
     Often we just found single contributions from bloggers describing FGM in their country. In Oman, we found three people who had written about FGM. Nevertheless, there were no research studies. Therefore, we travelled to Oman and spoke to people. Then we told UNICEF about our findings: as if it were the most self-evident thing in the world, women told us that they are all circumcised. Even the “circumciser” told us what she does. Now UNICEF put Oman on the list of countries where FGM is practised and will carry out a research in the country.
     We have collected information about other Gulf countries, from Iran to Pakistan – and then we noticed that we had chosen a wrong name for our association. We should have called ourselves Stop FGM Asia, since we also found information about FGM in India, Sri Lanka, on the Maldives, in Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, on the Philippines – and only a couple of months ago also in Cambodia and the Russian Republic of Dagestan. In this respect, the research for new information is still going on.
     However, by now we have achieved that in all involved circles FGM is not considered as a pure African problem anymore. We have organised regional meetings with many activists and today these activists will also be invited to international conferences about FGM. This is the first big step.
     Further steps depend on the ideas and activities of our partners. We are convinced that to be effective change must happen locally. We cooperate with many great women and men in Oman, Iraq, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia, India and Indonesia, who have very good project ideas to oppose FGM. In most cases, only money is needed.
MR: Which are the main obstacles on the spot to end FGM?
HW: First of all, you have to break the taboo. Usually, at the beginning politicians and even official women organisations simply deny the existence of the phenomenon. Therefore, you need evidence. We have developed a guideline for simple surveys so that the activists can carry out small surveys on the spot and deliver this evidence. 
     In all Asian countries, religious authorities also constitute a decisive factor. Except inCambodia, FGM in Asia – more than in Africa – is considered as an Islamic practice or even as religious duty. Where scholars support this point of view, there will be no chance to abolish FGM. Nevertheless, almost everywhere there are some clerics saying that FGM is not Islamic. The religious sources (not the Quran which does NOT mention female circumcision) of the Hadith are not unambiguous. Nevertheless, from an Islamic point of view there are very good reasons to prohibit FGM. 
     In the following campaigns, clerics should have no role to play – and should not do so because it is a matter of human rights, and not of religion. However, in the beginning it is essential to cooperate with them to overcome the obstacle.
MR: Which are the positive signs on the spot showing that finally something will change?
HW: According to the most recent UNICEF survey in Northern Iraq 80% of the respondents refuse FGM. As we started our campaign in 2006, 78% of the girls of the regions where FGM was practised were circumcised.  In the region of Dohuk, where FGM was not practised, there also was no “refusal”, but lack of knowledge about the existence of FGM in any place in Kurdistan. We reach the whole population with our TV spots, and in many villages where we started 10 years ago, FGM has disappeared. Since that the prohibition has been entered into force, in addition we can get in touch with the scholars who have propagated FGM until now.