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Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Women: Video versus tradition

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

A traditional rite of passage among Somali women is coming to an end with a training programme and an information campaign designed to prevent the mutilation of refugee girls.

Medina Hassan, 55 years old, her face creased with age and the trauma of eight years of living in a refugee camp, has been mutilating girls all her life.

"We used to be the mothers of the nation," the lifelong circumcisor said.

In early 1996, Medina Hassan says, she threw her time-worn blades away. They were knives that had cut more than 3,000 girls (perhaps as many as 15,000; she has lost all count). Sometimes as many as 10 mothers would come each week seeking her services for their daughters, who normally ranged in age from six to 11.

Medina performed the deep infibulation procedure, traditional in Somalia, for more than 30 years, before settling at Ethiopia's Hartisheik refugee camp after fleeing her native Gebile. The practice involves cutting off the clitoris, cutting the vulva and then sewing the two sides together to leave a small channel through which urine and the monthly menstruation can pass. Sometimes mistakes are made and the wound seals entirely, necessitating a repeat of the operation. Frequently, infection sets in, and sometimes the girl dies.

In 1993, UNHCR, together with the National Committee on Traditional Practices in Ethiopia (NCTPE), instituted a training and information campaign in Hartisheik that focused on female genital mutilation. The campaign targeted circumcisors, traditional birth attendants, religious leaders and community elders. The programme explained to women participants that the urinary, kidney and menstruation discomfort and complications most of them experience throughout their lives are a direct result of the rite of passage they suffered as children a rite that ended with clumsy stitches smeared with egg to cover their bleeding wounds.

Thanks in part to that training programme, and an emotional video that has been widely shown both to men and women, Hartisheik and other refugee camps have seen the custom of infibulation change. Since Medina Hassan first took part in the workshops, perhaps hundreds of girls have been spared deep infibulation. Amina Sharif, NCTPE's project coordinator, says the three main female circumcisors in Hartisheik camp Medina Hassan among them have ceased the brutal old practice. But they do continue to practice a modified version of female genital mutilation.

"Before, I used to get a lot of money, 100 birr ($15) for a infibulation, Medina Hassan said. "Nowadays, I am getting 40 to 50 birr for a little cut."

These days, Medina Hassan pricks a girl's clitoris enough to draw blood. Mothers must provide new razor blades for each child (thus preventing some unnecessary infections). This modified form of female genital mutilation is known as suna among the Somalis, and NCTPE (as well as UNHCR) hopes it too will stop. "We want to destroy completely the culture of mutilating women," said NCTPE's Amina Sharif.

Hassan says she decided to stop inflicting deep infibulation on young children when she reflected on the suffering she herself had undergone. She says that she is still sometimes asked to perform infibulation by mothers in the camp. She refuses. "There are still traditionalists in the camp. When they want me to make the deep cut and I refuse, they get angry," she said.

But ending mutilation altogether will take some time, Medina Hassan says.

"It is our tradition," Hassan said, noting that she recently performed the simplified procedure on her granddaughter. "I have never seen a woman saying, 'I don't want my child touched.'"

The NCTPE's Amina Sharif believes that education is the way to halt mutilation, but she says that workshops and posters are not enough. The circumcisors must have something else to do, and Medina Hassan, although advanced in years, agrees.

"I tell you frankly, the circumcisor earns money. We can only change if we have another job," she said. "That and education then you can eradicate circumcision."

Women who practice genital mutilation earn vast sums by Somali standards, whether at home or in refugee camps. Although Somali culture is clearly flexible enough to adapt to less brutal practices and may one day be ready to stop mutilating young girls altogether it may be hard to find replacement activities that can generate the same income for the circumcisors.

Meanwhile, deep infibulation is still practiced among Hartisheik's refugees, Medina Hassan says. Traditionalists will always find circumcisors willing to perform the old procedure. Despite the best efforts of field staff and NGOs, young refugee children in UNHCR's care will continue to be mutilated, and sometimes even killed.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)




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How UNHCR Helps Women

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Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Health crisis in South Sudan

There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

Health crisis in South Sudan

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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