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It's About Time to End Female Genital Mutilation in the Only Latin American Country Where It Still Exists

Agencia Prensa Rural Follow Embera Katío  Recorrido por la vereda Igueronal del corregimiento de Crucito, en Tierralta Córdoba. Es una zona que ha sido habitada cientos de años atrás por los Embera Katíos,

Members of Embera ethnic group in the town of Crucito in Tierralta Córdoba, Colombia. Photo taken from the Flickr account of Agencia Prensa Rural under a Creative Commons licence.

In Colombia, there are indigenous communities that still practice female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision. This makes Colombia the only country in Latin America where this custom is still in practice, according to some organizations.

Well into the 21st century, female circumcision affects 140 million women and 26 countries in the world, among these Colombia. NO TO FEMALE MUTILATION!!

In the indigenous community of Emberá, where female genital mutilation is still practiced, a group of young girls dying as a result of the procedure in 2007. Five years later, a public declaration by the indigenous authorities officially suspended the practice. But that didn't manage to completely wipe out female genital mutilation — last year, four Emberá girls died after undergoing the procedure.

Don't forget the news about female mutilation that still exists among Emberá women. Yes, right here in Colombia…

Alberto Wuazorna, leader of the Emberá Chamí (located in the central and west Colombian Andes), worked for over three years to raise awareness in the community with the goal of eliminating female genital mutilation. Of course, this was no easy task as the practice falls into the realm of women's sexuality. Based on his experience, he declared that “here we face an issue that goes back centuries, a process older than 200 years that we won't be able to eliminate in just three.”

How did female circumcision come to the Americas “swings between history and myth.” Víctor Zuluaga, a retired historian from the Technological University of Pereira who has worked with the Emberá Chamí communities from Risaralda since the 1970s, says:

[…] en el siglo XVII, cuando los colonos ya habían tomado el control de la mayoría de pueblos indígenas, los chamí se mantuvieron indomables. Eran un pueblo casi nómada que vivía más de la caza y de la pesca que de la agricultura o la minería. La salida que encontraron para ellos fue, pues, el camino: los usaron para trasladar carga entre la costa y las montañas. Su trayecto pasaba por Tadó, un pueblecito riquísimo en oro actualmente en el departamento del Chocó, donde trabajaban cientos de esclavos africanos. Cuando coincidían los domingos, a veces también en sábado, los indígenas y los esclavos tenían “un pequeño espacio de libertad” donde compartir costumbres y rituales.

[…] in the 17th century, when the settlers were already in control of most of the indigenous communities, the Chamí remained indomitable. They were a nomadic community that lived off of hunting and fishing more than farming and mining. The way out that they found was the road: They used it to move cargo between the coast and the mountains. Their route went through Tadó, a little town very rich in gold, currently part of the department of Chocó, where hundreds of African slaves used to work. When they met each other on Sundays, and sometimes on Saturdays, indigenous people and slaves had a “small space of freedom” where they shared traditions and rituals.

The slaves mentioned by Zuluaga hailed from Mali and were accustomed to their men spending much time away from home. The Emberá men also could spend two or three weeks hunting animals in the jungle, so the Malis taught them their ‘cure’ for controlling women's sexuality.

The Emberá Chamí are among the 30 indigenous communities from Colombia who are at risk of extinction. Historically, extreme poverty has afflicted many of the community’s members. Victims of exclusion and discrimination in the best of cases, and violence and displacement from their lands in the worst, the Emberá Chamí have also found themselves at times caught in the crossfire of armed groups operating in the area.

Human rights and women's advocacy organizations estimate there are between 100 and 130 million women in the world who have suffered female genital mutilation. And when it comes to Colombia, experts believe that in the Emberá Chamí community, three to four girls die every year due to complications from the “cure”:

“Soy mujer, soy emberá y no practico la ablación”. El mensaje que transmiten ahora Norfilia Caizales, consejera de mujer del Consejo Regional Indígena de Risaralda (CRIR), y otras mujeres de ambos resguardos no puede ser más claro y contundente. “Llevamos desde el año 2007 buscando nuevos procesos para el fortalecimiento de nuestras niñas, y ya es hora de decir, ‘no más a la práctica de la curación’”, añadió Norfilia.

“I am a woman, I am an Emberá and I don't practice female genital mutilation.” The message conveyed now by Norfilia Caizales, women's adviser at the Indigenous Regional Council of Risaralda (CRIR), and other women from both shelters can't be clearer or more compelling. “Since 2007 we are looking for new processes to empower our girls, and it's about time to say, ‘No more practicing the cure,’” added Norfilia.

According to UNICEF data, female genital mutilation is concentrated along a 29-country strip in Africa and the Middle East.

Gabriela García Calderón contributed to this post.
  • The United States and other Western countries that continue to tolerate male genital mutilation, also known euphemistically as “circumcision,” have no credibility when calling for an end to female genital mutilation. In the United States, although the rates of boys kept whole are increasing, fully 50% of all male children born, around 1 million baby boys each year, are strapped down and their healthy, normal foreskins are sliced off. There is no more medical necessity for this than there is for female genital mutilation, and all of the cultural rationales are the same. Down with hypocrisy. Protect all children!

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