Protecting African Women: The Maputo Protocol

The brutal tide is changing on Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM) in Africa because the pressure is beginning to come from within.

A great wheel of progress in gaining speed in the form of the Maputo Protocol, an African initiative to protect the rights of women on their continent. In October 2005, the Maputo Protocol came into force, following the African Union meeting in Maputo, Mozambique in 2003.

Along with the rights to reproductive health, dignity, integrity and security, the protocol forbids FGM and condemns it in every form. This has been the position of local and international groups for years, but this protocol has become nationally binding.

Its ratification by 15 member states of the African Union, which took a long time to ascertain but is now clear, means there is political pressure on all 53 African member states to enforce change. It also means that governments are starting to take responsibility for the health and well-being of their girls and women and societies are starting to speak up about what was, until not long ago, entirely unspeakable.

Female genitalia is now in the statutes: it cannot be covered up and ignored. As of mid-2007, FGM is against the law in 16 African countries.

Having laws does not guarantee adherence, but it does create a secure base from which non-governmental groups can leverage influence and individuals at risk can feel that change is on their side.

Recent studies have shown that in the last few years there is a drop in the numbers of FGM procedures being done in a range of the countries where it is very common, from West to Central and East Africa.

Cultural traditions do not change as quickly as laws are passed, but there are few traditions that evoke such opposition from within as well as from outside of the communities that have cultivated them. This is because there is a lot of misunderstanding as to the roots of the practice, and pressure from religious groups, government forces, legal authorities, grassroots groups and international celebrities is eroding its secret reign of terror.

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