6 February was the International Day against Female Genital Mutilation (GMF) – a day of Zero Tolerance. The United Nations launched this awareness day ten years ago to increase the profile of its campaign against female genital mutilation. Unfortunately, ten years later there is still the need for awareness, action and eradication.
To observe the International Day of Zero Tolerance, UNFPA, UNICEF and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) hosted a Google+ Hangout discussion on the progress made in abandoning FGM, and the challenges that remain ahead. The virtual event featured, among others, Lynne Featherstone, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development and Champion for the elimination of violence against women, and Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA.
FGM involves the injury to, or the partial or total removal of, the female genital organs. Most often performed on girls between 7-10 years old, the practice varies, and can be performed on those young or old, newborns or older women. The consequences can be enormous – long and short-term health complications as well as psychosexual and physiological damage. Being cut is a physically and emotionally traumatic practice. The origins of FGM are unknown – some think it goes back to the ancient Egyptians or perhaps to the Arab slave trade. In England during the mid-19th century Dr Issac Brown Baker became famous for promoting clitoridectomies to treat ailments ranging from epilepsy to hysteria. With the passage of time, FGM has been practiced in different countries by multiple cultures and religions for spiritual, health and aesthetic reasons. Today many cultures and religions have abandoned the practice. It is illegal in Europe, North America and in over 15 countries in Africa. Yet, according to the United Nations Population Fund, at least 3 million girls are still at risk each year. That means over 8,000 girls may be cut today.
From a human rights perspective, FGM is child abuse, a form of gender discrimination and gender-based violence. In the most extreme cases FGM can violate a girl’s right to life. It clearly infringes human rights treaties, the rights of children and the rights of women.
So what is being done? Quite a lot. From large international organisations like UNFPA and UNICEF to grassroots groups across Africa, and many NGOs in between, knowledge is being shared, and commitments are being made, to eradicate FGM. The UN believes that we can see the end of FGM with this generation.
Essentially we need to realize that ending FGM in a community involves everyone – mothers and fathers, cutters, community leaders, religious leaders and the girls themselves. The practice is connected to livelihoods, authority, respect and tradition. The context needs to be understood before real change can happen. It’s important to create an open, honest and non-judgmental environment to begin the conversation to end this harmful cultural practice.
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