Dr Natalia Kanem is United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund
For thousands of years the mysterious and life-creating power of women has been recognised and cherished. But her sexuality and power to create life is also feared.
In many communities around the world there have been attempts to contain or neutralise this power by literally cutting it away. Every year on 6 February this harmful practice comes under the spotlight as the world observes International Day for Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
The harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) takes many forms. In some places FGM constitutes a small cut of the clitoris on infants. In others, it means the scraping of the entire vulva and a stitching of the labia so extreme that urination and menstruation may be affected and the consummation of marriage becomes a painful, bloody and sometimes deadly affair. Justification includes ensuring chastity and marriageability, religious or cultural obligation, hygiene, aesthetics and initiation into womanhood.
Wherever or for whatever reason it is practised, FGM represents a violation – of autonomy, of bodily integrity, and of the right to health. Because it is perpetrated on girls too young or powerless to resist, it also constitutes a form of child abuse.
Although prevalence rates are declining, some 200 million girls and women worldwide have suffered through FGM. The survivors typically live in around 30 countries from Africa’s Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Aden, through the Middle East and Indonesia. Many of these countries have high fertility rates and a young population, so the absolute number of girls being cut could increase in the near future.
Wherever or for whatever reason it is practised, FGM represents a violation of rights and a form of child abuse
FGM follows the people who practice it, and it has been exported to every continent, making FGM a global concern. Girls in diaspora communities in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are subjected to the practice. While FGM is banned and punishable under national law in all of these countries and regions, the practice is continues to be inflicted clandestinely on girls. We at UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, also know of girls who have been taken to their home countries during school holidays and cut. In Europe, an estimated 180,000 girls are at risk every year, in particular in Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, where large diaspora communities from areas that practice FGM now reside.
The fact that the practice is now a global issue requires a global response. The international community has taken a strong stance against this assault on the human rights and the dignity of women and girls, highlighted in numerous regional and international declarations and in three resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, also call for an end to the practice globally by 2030.
To achieve this ambitious goal we need to accelerate current efforts by grassroots organisations, individuals and communities. Many of these groups are supported by UNFPA’s Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation, organised in collaboration with UNICEF.
One of the promising approaches UNFPA endorses is the creation of bridges between diaspora and their communities of origin, as well as among groups addressing FGM around the world. This year’s International Day for Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation has adopted the ‘building bridges’ approach as one of its main themes.
The building bridges approach promotes sharing experiences and adapting good practices for addressing FGM. For example, gynaecologists and obstetricians in Western countries have received guidance from colleagues in Africa who have more experience in dealing with the physical and emotional harm the practice can cause. Child protection services are collaborating with asylum-seekers, and civil society organisations provide additional resources and lessons on how to stop the practice.
Dialogue and discussions take place across virtual bridges, such as webinars, videoconferences, group emails and web platforms. This idea of bridges is relevant to accelerating a shift in social norms as well: bridges of communication can keep the conversation evolving.
Some diaspora families may not be aware of shifting attitudes back home and continue to cut their daughters out of a sense of religious or cultural obligation
A recent survey has revealed a seismic shift in personal beliefs on FGM. In Somalia, for example, the prevalence rate has dropped from 98% to 65% in the past few years, and social acceptance of the practice is plummeting, with a substantial majority of women (82%) opposing it. Only one-third of women surveyed said they had cut their daughters. More than 70% of the men stated that they would marry a girl who was not cut, signifying that the cultural importance placed on female genital mutilation in preparing a girl for marriage is no longer strong.
Some diaspora families have abandoned the practice and became powerful spokespersons against it in their communities of origin. This is extremely relevant information for families and their daughters who live in other countries. They may not be aware of shifting attitudes and expectations about FGM back home, and who might continue to cut their daughters out of a sense of religious or cultural obligation.
Ending FGM by 2030 will spare millions of girls who would otherwise face this emotional, physical and human rights violation. The building bridges approach has the potential to speed up the efforts that are ongoing in many countries around the world.
We know that the end of FGM is in sight, but for the sake of women and girls, we must make every effort to hasten its demise.