To end female genital mutilation, economically empower women

FGM severely hampers career prospects and economic opportunities for 200 million women and girls.

Women Kenya FGM
Students in Kenya arrive at an event advocating against female genital mutilation (FGM), which causes multiple mental and physical health problems [Siegfried Modola/Reuters]

Female genital mutilation (FGM) will not be eradicated unless women are economically empowered to make their own decisions, an activist stressed today, as the United Nations released data warning that the ancient practice may take centuries to eliminate.

Despite world leaders promising to eradicate the practice by 2030, FGM remains as common today as it was 30 years ago in Somalia, Mali, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Chad and Senegal. “Some countries are not moving at all, and those that are moving are not moving fast enough,” said Claudia Cappa, an analyst at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

Estimated to affect at least 200 million girls and women globally, FGM causes multiple mental and physical health problems. A 12-year-old girl recently died in Egypt after undergoing FGM. The practice typically involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. Sometimes the vaginal opening is sewn up.

Jaha Dukureh, a survivor of child marriage and FGM, said that while it is “not unrealistic” to make the promise to end the practice by 2030, people must “put their money where their mouth is” and stop wasting funding on ineffective aid programmes.  

“The best way women can stand up for themselves and their rights is if they are able to earn a little more,” said Dukureh, who in 2013 founded the advocacy group Safe Hands for Girls, which works in The Gambia, Sierra Leone and the United States.

She said that all too often, politicians shy away from the sensitive topic of FGM, with the responsibility falling on charities to do the work. What is more concerning is that foreign donors often fund international organisations that do not understand local customs and practices. 

“I don’t know why anyone expects change if that’s the way the development sector is going to continue funding these issues,” she said.

FGM is most closely linked to 30 predominantly African countries, but UNICEF said it may be practised in about 50 countries including those in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Although no high-prevalence country is on track to meet the 2030 goal, Cappa said attitudes are changing in many places.

In countries affected by FGM, seven in 10 women think the practice should end, and half of women who have themselves been cut would like to see it stop, according to the report published on Thursday, February 6 – the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

The most dramatic decline in recent decades has been in the Maldives, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, where FGM used to affect nearly 40 percent of girls and women, but has now been virtually eradicated.

UNICEF also voiced concern about increased “medicalisation” of FGM hampering global efforts to end the practice.

About a quarter of girls and women who have undergone FGM were cut by a doctor, midwife or other health worker as opposed to a traditional circumciser, UNICEF said.

“Doctor-sanctioned mutilation is still mutilation. Trained healthcare professionals who perform FGM violate girls’ fundamental rights, physical integrity and health,” said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore.

Source: Reuters