Colombia Confronts Female Genital Mutilation

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

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

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

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.

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  • invalid-0

    Of course this should be considerer domestic violation, how come a mother, a father, take their newborns to the doctor so they can cut their clitoris?

    This is heartless, and it should be punished.


    Outsourcing in call center

  • invalid-0

    I am Embera myself and I have never heard of this before.
    I would really like to know where you got this info.
    If this is true it won’t do to condemn them. They are not little children that need to be educated by western society.
    Western society has always patronized other cultures and we know what happened because of it: poverty,alcoholism and domestic violence are just a few of the problems people face who have lost their roots due to ungoing colonialism.
    We have to talk to each other and find out what it means to the Embera to follow these traditions. If you want to change something you have to really understand what the problem is. It won’t help if some judge forbids it.Are we going to put the parents in jail for this? And then what? What do you think will happen to the girls without their parents? They will end up in some childrens home for the poor or they will end up on the streets of Manizales where they become prostitutes.
    Of course I am shocked that my own people seem to practice FGM, but even as we speak, millions of male babies are being circumcised in the United States. Why don’t we think about that and then start talking to other cultures about how we can preserve culture without hurting our children.

  • invalid-0

    I think that circumcision practices for both boys and girls is wrong. Adults can do what they want with their bodies, but children should not be subjected to these procedures. Would it be a compromise to illegalize FGM only for children? I am sure that does not solve the problem entirely, because many groups will still see that as an infringement of their cultural rights. But I think allowing adults to undergo the procedure is fine, if that is what they want to do with their bodies. But children who don’t know any better should not be subjected to the health risks.

  • invalid-0

    As I mentioned in my article, the practiced of FGM within the Embera Chami was revealed through the judge Jesús Arcila Alzate, from the town Pueblo Rico, providence of Risaralda; and the doctor Hugo Hernando Marsiglia, from the health center of Quinchía. In 2007 other doctors from the Hospital San Rafael (Pueblo Rico) got evidence of clitoridectomy practiced in other Embera Chami newborn girls. The Organización Nacional Indígena (the larger indigenous organization in Colombia) and Aldemar Tausarma, an Embera-Chami leader, have not denied this information; moreover they said that it is an “ancestral practice”.

  • invalid-0

    i certainly sympathise with how indiginous peoples have been exploited by western peoples but human abuse is human abuse –no matter who does it or for what purpose and it must be outlawed and severely punished. Only if there is a threat of severe punishment maybe people will stop hurting their children–esp girls. If a girl suffers for the rest of her life then yes it would be better to not be with her parents if that is how to save her. Torture should not be legal anywhere or of any kind–esp. to innocent babies. Like another poster said maybe compromise of allowing adults to abuse themselves if they want–but then it becomes sticky because of the pressure to have it done by family and others. If that compromise is used–the girls should be fully informed of all the health problems that will happen and it should be legal only in a hospital. Of course it should be the same for boys in our country too –it should be illegal to do any non necessary medical or cosmetic procedure to any child, until they are old enough to consent to it. I don’t even liek babies having their ears pierced since they cannot consent to it!

  • invalid-0

    however, as fanon points out in his brilliant analysis of the algerian revolution, “A DYING COLONIALISM”, it has been the effet of the ‘white man’s burden’ to intenify cultural practices that are inhumane. (His analysis has about the hijab, but it also mirros spivak’s analysis of sutte> widiow burning -sp?) The analsyis is as follows as Imperialists work to counteract the native cultural practice, but because this practice is being forced from above (ie the imperialist colonizing white men & women) the practice gets used as a way to counteract such an impostion. If we want to stop things like FGM, we have to find the women (& men) themselves from these communities and support them in their struggles.

    Furthermore, although it is horrific, we cannot paint this as a savage/civilized problem, as if i remember correctly, women are continuously raped and murdered in so-called ‘western civilized’ countries, in horrific numbers. (a few years ago, reading cbc news articles about women murdered across canada, in one month, there was at least 5…