Monday, February 6th, was International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. As part of the observance of the Day, posters (written in Arabic, English and Tigrigna) were hanging on the streets of Asmara.
In Eritrea, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has long been identified as a harmful traditional practice that needs to be eradicated. The government has demonstrated its firm commitment to abolish this harmful practice by issuing legislation and conducing awareness raising campaigns.
In 2007, Proclamation No.158/2007 prohibiting the practice of FGM was proclaimed by the government of Eritrea. The proclamation, which came into effect on 20 March 2007, makes it a criminal offence to perform FGM on another person in Eritrea and sets out the associated penalties. The new Penal Code of Eritrea (2015) also states that “a person who exercises parental authority who for gain or in dereliction of duty grossly neglects the children under his charge and abandons them without due care and attention or to moral or physical dangers” is punishable by article 327. Under Article 327 of the new Penal Code, which relates to the neglect of children and putting them in danger, the offence is punishable with one to six months imprisonment or a fine of 5,001–20,000 Nakfa.
The government is signatory to many international legal instruments that protect human rights and prohibit discrimination against specific groups, in particular women and children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) were ratified and enforced in 1994 and 1995 respectively. CEDAW obliges states to “pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.” It reaffirms equality of human rights for women and men in society and in the family, and it urges member states to take action against the social causes of women’s inequality. It further calls for the elimination of laws, stereotypes, practices and prejudices that impair women’s well-being.
Furthermore FGM is a practice that makes women vulnerable to adverse health effects. It is an offense in the eyes of modern acceptable standards of behavior articulated in conventions, national laws and proclamations. FGM and other harmful traditional practices are carried out mainly because of negative attitudes about girls and women. In Eritrea, both colonization and backwardness had given for the persistence of the harmful traditional practices detrimental to the health and status of women. It’s only after independence that the government of Eritrea challenged the hazardous implications of such practices, which violate the rights to health, life, dignity and personal integrity of women. And the criminalization of FGM and the awareness raising campaigns have created a safe space, where women and girls comfortably and safely live, play, work, learn and participate.
Before independence FGM was carried out by Eritrean society as normal and acceptable practice. Usually it is performed on infants that are a few days or months old. The reasons for the practice are many, including, but not limited to, psychosexual reasons. By reducing or eliminating the sensitive tissue of the outer genitalia, particularly the clitoris, it is widely believed that the sexual desire in females can be reduced. Lowering sexual desire, according to this belief, in turn increases the probability for girls to maintain their virginity before marriage. Religious institutions in Eritrea dismissed the spiritual excuses and demanded that adherents abandon the practice.
The abolition of FGM is particularly important in view of the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Eritrea has made great progress in ending harmful practices against women and girls. According to the figures released by the Socio-economic head of the National Union of Eritrean Women, the Union has made a lot of efforts to eliminate harmful traditional practices. The abolition of FGM is inevitable with a significant number of villages declaring FGM free.
FGM has mysterious origins and is based on absurd and vague reasons, but in any case it amounts to violence against women and children. The government of Eritrea has taken important steps to eliminate it because it is clearly identified as gross and serious violation of the rights of women. Through sensitization and legislation, the government is working to bring about total elimination of the practice in Eritrea. The government has been intensifying its efforts to protect and promote human rights of women by fighting against FGM, child marriage and other harmful practices.