Colombia Confronts Female Genital Mutilation

Until 2007, Colombians believed that female genital mutilation was a practice unique to some African countries. But last year we learned that it has long been practiced by one of Colombia's aboriginal groups.

Until 2007, Colombians believed that female genital mutilation (FGM) was a practice unique to some African countries. But last year we learned that it has long been practiced by one of Colombia’s aboriginal groups.

Last December, three seventeen-day-old girls from the Embera-Chami aboriginal group were attended by a doctor in Quinchia, a small town located in the Colombian coffee region. They were feverish and vomiting. While checking the babies, the doctor found out that their clitorises had been cut.

The doctor submitted the case to the judicial authorities in order establish whether this practice could be considered a crime of domestic violence. Judge Marino de Jesús Arcila Alzate stated that FGM is a “barbaric and inhuman practice, and a violation of girl’s and women’s rights.” But he did not initiate a criminal investigation because he determined that there was no evidence of criminal intention, and FGM was a cultural practice.

Nevertheless, on July 29th the same judge urged the President of Colombia to develop a legal tool to stop FGM, including the clitoridectomy. FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

This aboriginal group is composed of 15,000 to 25,000 individuals who live in small groups in various rural locations, most of them in the Colombian province of Risaralda, at the heart of the coffee region. They have their own government (cabildos), spiritual leaders (jaibanas) and cultural traditions.

One of such traditions is to cut the clitoris of the girls just after they born.  According to the doctor who checked the babies, by performing the FGM the indigenous are trying to ensure the fidelity of the Chami women. The physician also said that some Chami people believe that the clitoris could be developed into a penis.  But it seems that FGM is also practiced to control women’s sexuality.

The judge based its request to the President in the consideration that even if the Colombian Constitutional Act states that aboriginal groups can apply their own justice within their communities, the Colombian state cannot allows practices which are violating human’s rights. FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

The President has not yet expressed his opinion. However, the controversy based on cultural traditions vs. human’s rights has already come up.

Aldemar Tausarma, one of the Embera-Chami leaders, argued that FGM is a practice “which goes back to our ancestors and therefore it has to be respected.”  This opinion was supported by the Organización Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), the larger organization of Colombian aboriginals.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “in most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.” “FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women,” states WHO.  This UN agency also declared that FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue. Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections; cysts; infertility; and eventually, the need for later surgeries.

The Colombian NGO Fundación Mujer y Futuro has called for an intercultural dialogue to address the FGM with the indigenous people:  “Such dialogue should respect cultural differences but also women’s dignity and aboriginal women’s right to sexual satisfaction, which transcends ancestral traditions.”

As this practice is nearly always carried out on minors, it “is a violation of the rights of children, and also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death,” points out WHO.