Guest post by Anna Diofasi, Humanitas Global
Every year, over three million girls and young women undergo a common and historical ritual practice known as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). There are approximately 125 million young women living that have undergone the practice, which typically takes place before the age of 15 and often before the age of 5. According to the WHO, FGM/C has no health benefits, and may cause painful complications for young girls, including infections, cysts, and infertility, and most severely leading to the deaths of thousands of lives each year. It is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, infringing upon the rights to health and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It is also a particularly dreadful manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination, often associated with ideals of female purity and chastity.
Earlier this week, UNICEF published a report, which highlights the persistence of female genital mutilation. They found that FGM/C is still widely practiced today and mainly concentrated in North African and Middle Eastern countries – with Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt, having the highest prevalence rates (all above 90%). To view more detailed country-by-country data on the prevalence of FGM/C, the Guardian created this useful interactive tool.
There have been considerable efforts during the past decades to address FGM/C, but changing cultural traditions and social expectations is difficult. Changing social norms need to reach a ‘critical mass’ before they can replace existing social norms and practices. Public education campaigns and grassroots initiatives can therefore hold great promise. For example, over 5,000 village communities in Senegal and hundreds more in Burkina Faso have publicly declared their abandonment of FGM/C over the past couple of years.
Trends in public opinion are also a showing a decline in its support. Surveys conducted by UNICEF show that in 19 out of the 29 countries where the practice is concentrated, the majority of girls and women think it should stop. In almost all 29 countries, the number of girls and women who support the practice is substantially lower than the number of girls and women who have been cut. Information and education are crucial to women’s empowerment. The data collected by UNICEF shows that in both high and low prevalence countries, FGM/C is more common among daughters of women with no education, and tends to decrease substantially as the mother’s education level rises.
The international community has taken significant steps towards eliminating FGM/C in recent years. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution, “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations,” in December 2012. The resolution calls upon States to enhance awareness-raising, education, and training to eliminate attitudes and harmful practices that negatively affect girls, with special emphasis on stopping FGM/C.
Local, national, and international efforts to end FGM must continue and multiply. Individuals and organizations need to be careful, however, not to vilify entire cultures and belief systems while campaigning against the practice, and women who have been cut should not be made to feel like victims. Findings from the UNICFEF report suggest that campaigns to eradicate FGM/C need to be tailored to the specific regions and ethnic groups they are aiming to target, as overarching national strategies seem to have little effect.
More should be done to simulate discussions in communities where it is widely practiced and where individual views against FGM/C can be safely expressed. It is important to engage all levels of society about FGM/C, including boys and men. Perhaps surprisingly, in the majority of countries it was found that boys and men are against continuing the practice – even outnumbering women in their opposition to FGM in countries like Sierra Leone and Guinea.
While there has been a steady decline in the practice of FGM/C for the past three decades, approximately 30 million girls are still at risk. As indicated by the report, education and inclusion have been instrumental in reducing the occurrence of FGM/C, and are the way forward. The global community needs to work together - at all levels of society - to finally end this cultural practice.