24 percent of Yemeni women experience genital mutilation [Archives:2007/1024/Health]

February 12 2007

Amel Al-Ariqi
According to the United Nations Population Fund office in Sana'a, 24 percent of Yemeni women have been exposed to female genital mutilation (FGM).

Yemen is a conservative society where families practice such mutilation as a religious and cultural tradition. It also has become a common belief that the practice serves to temper female sexual desire.

While illiteracy stands at 29.8 percent for Yemeni men, it's 62.1 percent for women, which is another factor responsible for FGM practices in Yemen, according to experts.

A 2001 ministerial decree prohibited FGM in Yemen, but health officials say they couldn't monitor the decree's application in all medical facilities. Dr. Jamila Al-Raiby, the Ministry of Health's general director of women's affairs, notes that the ministry's role is to raise public awareness.

“Our role is to address those attempting to raise awareness. In most cases, we experience difficulties when talking with people about this sensitive issue, but we request help from religious men with influence in their communities to talk with citizens about the risks and dire medical consequences of this practice,” she said.

Al-Raiby points out that there are no sufficient studies on FGM practices in Yemen. According to her, a 2000 study conducted by the Pacific Institute for Women's Health revealed that more than 97 percent of respondents in Hodeidah had experienced FGM, 96 percent in Al-Mahrah and Hadramout, 82 percent in Aden and 45.5 percent in Sana'a. The study involved a sample of 2,163 women in those governorates.

The study found that immediate complications include severe pain, shock, hemorrhaging, urine retention, ulcerating the genital region and injuring adjacent tissue. Bleeding and infection can cause death.

Some professionals who read the study were shocked and disputed the figures, saying that the areas where interviews were conducted had a high percentage of immigrant populations, leading to inflated numbers of women who had FGM performed on them.

However, Soheir Stolba, Ph.D., who worked in this field in Yemen, confirmed, “Most educated Yemenis denied the custom's existence, attributing it only to limited pockets of coastal populations where African immigrants live. My continued work on this phenomenon over a six-year period revealed that FGM is deeply rooted in Yemen.”

Stolba referred to another practice, known locally as al-takmeed, performed on female genitalia in Yemeni coastal areas. On the fourth day after a baby girl's birth, her mother or an older female household member prepares a compress to use on the genitalia. The compress is a soft cotton material inside of which heated salt and/or sand is placed, along with oil and herbs.

A mother heats the compress and places it on the infant's genitalia, pressing repeatedly for about an hour. This continues for a period varying between 40 days and four months. The procedure's physical effect may affect nerve endings and decrease the sexual excitement of the girl or woman on whom it's performed.

Often referred to as “female circumcision,” FGM includes all procedures involving partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs.

Ministry of Health studies reveal that trained medical personnel perform only 10 percent of such operations. Women specialized in ear piercing, birthing attendants, rayissas (women skilled in female circumcision) and relatives perform most FGM procedures.

According to the studies, the procedure is done 95 percent of the time at home and mothers are the primary decision-makers in determining if their daughters will have it.

USAID's 1997 Demographic and Health Survey conducted in Yemen found that nearly all reported procedures (97 percent) occurred during the first month of life. Health facilities housed only three percent of these, while 97 percent were performed at home, with a traditional birthing attendant (68 percent) or elderly female relative (19 percent) usually doing the procedure.

Nurses, midwives and doctors perform seven percent of FGM procedures, whereas barbers do five percent. The usual tool is a razor blade, although scissors are used 20 percent of the time.

The World Health Organization reported in June 2006 that women who've had FGM are significantly more likely to experience difficulties during childbirth and their babies are more likely to die as a result of the practice.

At the Feb. 6 International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation, the UNFPA called for preventing such a practice, which “violates the basic rights of women and girls and seriously compromises their health.”

“The UNFPA calls for stronger government commitments to fund and implement programs to prevent FGM,” said UNFPA Executive Director Thorraya Ahmed Obaid, who confirmed that between 120 and 140 million women worldwide have been subjected to the practice and three million girls continue to be at risk each year.