Legislation may follow religious edict in failing to outlaw female genital mutilation in all its forms
Somaliland is expected to pass a law banning female genital mutilation amid complaints from some activists that the move will not go far enough.
Earlier this month Somaliland announced a new fatwa, or religious edict, banning two of the three types of female cutting. Now moves are afoot to support the decree with legislation likely to be approved by the self-declared republic’s government within weeks.
Somaliland has one of the world’s highest rates of FGM, with Unicef estimating that 98% of women aged 15 to 49 in the east African state have undergone the procedure. According to the World Health Organization, FGM is also often performed on girls under the age of 15, resulting in complications that range from bleeding and infection to problems with urination and complications with childbearing.
The fatwa, which has no legal significance without supporting legislation, does not outlaw type one FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris. It is not yet known if the legislation will condemn all three types of FGM, which can range from removing part of the clitoris to narrowing the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
Abdirahman O Gaas, executive director of the Network Against FGM/C in Somaliland, a group of civil society organisations working to end the practice, is confident the government will approve the new legislation.
“We are very optimistic that this policy will get the approval of the cabinet, as the president has previously showed commitment to this issue,” said Gaas. “It is likely parliament will pass the law since there is no significant conflict between the stakeholders. Through the fawta, religious leaders have also showed commitment to outlawing FGM.”
The fatwa and supporting legislation follows the recent introduction of a law criminalising rape in Somaliland and Ayan Mahamoud, the state’s resident representative in Britain and the Commonwealth, believes it is a time of progress in Somaliland.
“It’s a step in a good direction,” said Mahamoud. “Although we are not completely satisfied with the fatwa, having it will help the legislation to go through parliament and will save many young girls from abuse.”
Educating Somaliland’s population and enforcing punishment would be the biggest challenges for the legislation, said Mahamoud. There has so far been no indication of the type or severity of punishment that those who continue to practice FGM will face.
Gaas said the support of religious leaders would strengthen the legislation: “The backup of religious leaders is very important, as society in Somaliland is very influenced by them. Now they are supporting this agenda I think everything will run smoothly, but the lawmakers need time and technical support.”
The involvement of religious leaders has also drawn criticism, however. Guleid Ahmed Jama, chairperson of Human Rights Centre Somaliland, expressed concern that linking FGM and Islam would blur the line between religious issues and cultural practices.
He said: “The decision of the religious ministry has effectively legalised FGM by only condemning two types of FGM. It has given a sense of religious meaning to something that has nothing to do with religion.
“I am very concerned about the involvement of religious leaders. If you give religious leaders the power to make declarations that have legislative meaning, that will endanger and undermine the state structures and systems. I am concerned this may set a precedent for future laws.”
The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, a network of civil society organisations, said in a statement: “The fatwa of the religious affairs ministry is misleading as it is not banning FGM from an Islamic religious view. On the contrary, it is allowing and legitimising type one FGM from an Islamic angle, which is still the most commonly practised type of FGM.”
Guleid warned that the legislation would not be indicative of zero tolerance towards FGM by the government. “You cannot accept part of a human rights violation and prohibit another part,” he said. “A human rights violation is a human rights violation and should be eradicated all together.”