Colombia

Country: Colombia

Population: 47,846,160 (approximately 50,000 people living in Colombia who identify as Embera)

Estimated prevalence among women aged 15-49:

Unknown

To date, there has been no national study conducted by campaigning groups or the government, and therefore widespread data is unavailable.

Type Practiced:

Type I and II forms of FGC have been reported among the Embera-Chami tribe in Western Colombia.

Legal status:

FGC is legal in Colombia. The President has not expressed his opinion. However, the controversy based on cultural traditions vs. human’s rights has come up.

History of FGC:

It is assumed that FGC was brought from Africa during the slave era to Colombia, when there was a lot of contact with African communities. According to Siagama of CRIRES, the Embera community’s research revealed that the practice was not indigenous, but rather had been brought over by Europeans more than 500 years ago.

FGC in Colombia is a ritual that is practised by the Embera-Chami ethnic group. FGC was made public in Colombia due to the deaths of girls following complications at the time of the cut, notably a 15 day old Chami baby who died of a haemorrhage following type II FGC in 2007.  The Embera-Chami tribe 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 such tradition is to cut the clitoris of the girls just after they are born and is an attempt to ensure the fidelity of the Chami women. One physician said that some Chami people believe that the clitoris could be developed into a penis, whereas other girls are taught they will not be able to get married unless they are cut.  But it seems that FGC is also practised to control women’s sexuality and that herbs/candle wax is applied to the clitoris of newborn girls to supposedly partially inhibit sexual pleasure during adult life.

In 2007 three seventeen day old Chami girls were visited by a doctor after their parents raised concerns over their high fevers and vomiting. The doctor who checked the babies discovered that the girls had been cut, and subsequently submitted the case to the judicial authorities to establish whether this practice is considered domestic violence. Judge Marino de Jesús Arcila Alzate stated that FGC 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 FGC was a cultural practice.  However, this same judge urged the President of Colombia to develop a legal tool to support ending FGC.

Current efforts to abandon FGC:

The baby girl’s death sparked the creation of the “Embera Wera” (“Embera Women”) movement, which, with support from the MDG-Fund, worked to transform the practice from within the community itself, helping to find an alternative that would replace its meaning within Embera culture without risking the health of its little girls.

Colombian authorities and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have been working with several Embera communities in the country’s western Risaralda province to eradicate the practice. As a result of the five-year campaign, leaders representing 25,000 Emberas living in two indigenous reserves in the Risaralda province vowed to stop FGC in their communities as of 2010.  “The community has to make a collective decision about FGC in a public assembly involving hundreds of people, including fathers, husbands, elders, women and the midwives who carry out FGM. Perhaps the hardest part is for communities to inform their own people that FGM has stopped,” said Ruiz from UNFPA.

This decision follows five years of reflection on the issue, where the Embera-Chami realised FGC has no health or cultural benefits. They were also placed at ease after their discovery that FGC was only a couple of centuries old; a statement supported by several United Nations agencies.

In addition, the decision to abandon FGC by the Chami was influenced by the movie ‘Desert Flower’, which successfully premiered in Colombia in 2009. Waris Dirie says of this achievement: “From the moment of its world premiere over a year ago, I have said that the reason I agreed to make this movie was that I want to reach as many people as possible and make them realise the cruelty and absurdity of FGM. The declaration of the Embera is a great example of the impact this movie can have!”

Miriam Nengarabe, an Embera, says that although indigenous women were historically not valued enough in their communities, now, through education and organization, they are beginning to recognize their rights: "Because women are the same as anyone else."

Ongoing challenges:

It was a challenge getting Embera women, who have little status within the community, to discuss the taboo issue of FGC in public: “we found women were really marginalised. They weren’t represented and didn’t have a voice. It was fundamental to get Embera women talking. Some didn’t speak Spanish or make eye contact with you at first. It was a long process,” said Ruiz of UNFPA. Some Embera women who took part in workshops on the health risks of FGC paid a ‘high price’. We did hear of some women who were beaten by their husbands after they had attended a workshop. They left their kids at home and men didn’t know how to deal with their wives' new role as activists. Men felt a loss of control”. It is therefore not known how these women will be subsequently treated following the abandonment of FGC in their communities, and whether the leading men will decide to reinstate FGC.

Whilst the government have participated in the abandonment of FGC with the Embera-Chami, there is still no universal law banning FGC and therefore FGC could continue to be practised in other regions by different communities in Colombia. For example, there are reports of isolated cases in communities of the same ethnic group who live in the rain forest of the Colombian Pacific. Adoption of a universal law could support change, as well as sustained community-led and community-based activities working to change the social norm amongst the Embera-Chami.

Major languages:

Spanish – 99.2%

Amerindian & Creole – 0.8%

English has official status in the San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina Islands

Major religions:

Roman Catholic – 81%

Protestant – 13.5%

Other faiths – 3.6%

No religion – 1.9%

In the news:

UNFPA News - In Colombia, efforts to end FGM are empowering women to be leaders

BBC news - 'Cut with a blade': Colombia indigenous groups discuss FGM

BreitBart - The last tribe in the Americas to practice FGC speaks out about ending the practice in their community

Global Voices – Time to end FGC in the only Latin American country where it is still  practiced

The Thomson Reuters Foundation - Colombia begins campaign to stop the Emberá from practising FGC

Colombia Reports - FGC in Colombia more common than assumed

FIGO - Colombian indigenous group vows to stop female genital mutilation

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