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Somalia has a new constitution which aims to protect girls from female circumcision

Today (Monday 20th August), Somalia’s transitional federal government has been replaced by a new president, prime minister, speaker and ministers elected by clan elders, following the approval of a new Provisional Constitution at the beginning of this month.

Though the United Nations has warned that the process of appointing ministers was corrupt, observers are still cautiously optimistic that the new system of government and constitution herald the beginning of a new chapter for the country after more than two decades of anarchy and destruction.

Development workers and women’s rights activists are particularly pleased with a ban on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the new constitution. Currently, over 95% of women in Somalia undergo some form of FGM/C. This practice is carried out because of religious and cultural beliefs that female circumcision keeps women pure and reduces their sexual libido. But it leaves girls open to the dangers of severe bleeding and infection, as well as infertility and a higher risk of complications during childbirth, for both mother and baby. (In 2008, 1,200 women died in childbirth for every 100,000 live births according to the WHO.)

Medical experts and rights campaigners have welcomed the new constitution of Somalia which declares that “circumcision of girls is a cruel and degrading customary practice and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited.” But health and development workers in Somalia know this is only the first step in eradicating FGM/C, because the practice is so entrenched in Somali society and is widely backed by religious leaders and elders of communities.

A woman’s advocate in Somalia told the news agency IRIN, that any reduction in the number of girls undergoing FGM/C would require “education, awareness-raising and strong legal provisions”. And there is a general understanding that it will take time to overcome cultural and religious prejudices which dictate that men must only marry circumcised girls. Nevertheless, one mother of two who had undergone the painful and degrading circumcision procedure herself, said that at least the FGM/C ban offered hope to parents who did not want their daughters to suffer the same fate, because now they could say “the law does not allow it”.

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