FGM: A global problem in need of a global solution?

by Nigeen Dara 

In 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution by which it called upon states, the United Nations system, civil society and all stakeholders to observe 6th of February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Various activities and events are held on February 6th each year to promote this campaign to raise awareness and educate about the dangers of FGM.

Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. This barbaric practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. It violates their rights to health, physical integrity, freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. When the procedure results in death, they are denied their right to life.

FGM is not an easy subject to talk about. Consequently, many people do not know this practice exists, or that more than 200 million women and girls around the world live with its consequences today (UNICEF, 2016).

For those who do know about FGM, far too many think it is here to stay.

However, that is a belief I do not adopt. Whether you care about global health, good governance, international development or human rights, the many stories of FGM are ones we need to hear about, share and combat.

FGM is the story of inflicting pain on women globally. Many people believe the misconception that it is an African practice, however FGM also occurs in the West, Southeast Asia and Middle East. In many parts of the world the practice is carried out by untrained practitioners, without the use of anaesthesia, using unsterilised instruments. Afterwards, girls are at high risk of haemorrhaging, recurrent infections, complications in child birth, and even death.

The WHO states that there are no health benefits to FGM. The consequences can be high-risk and vary from immediate problems to long-term, damaging effects. The initial procedure can result in severe pain, shock, bleeding, tetanus or bacterial infection and inability to urinate. Long term, girls are also at risk of abnormal periods, recurrent infections, cysts, pain during sex, infertility and childbirth issues. Evidently, survivors can also suffer psychological problems following this traumatic procedure.

FGM is the story of injustice and inequality. The practice has now been outlawed in most countries where it occurs, and some countries have seen a dramatic reduction in prevalence rates. But it wasn’t until recently that Egypt used its law to convict a doctor who performed FGM on a 13-year-old who died from the procedure. The conviction came after human rights lawyers and NGOs fought hard for the government to pursue the case. Despite legal changes, girls and women all around the world continue to be cut.

FGM is the story of social norms and cultural traditions. In so many communities where FGM is prevalent it is part of a ceremony, a celebration of a girl’s transition to womanhood. Midwives (or sometimes elder women) perform FGM as a way to prepare a girl for potential marriage, or to protect her from becoming a social outcast. FGM won’t end until communities collectively and publicly declare an end to the practice. From meeting many victims of FGM, I can conclude that the parents who allow the cutting of their daughters do not do so out of maliciousness or cold nature, but as a gesture of protection, to allow their daughters to fit in to society.

Furthermore, because many of them have not had the benefits of education, they are unaware of the consequences. They see it as abiding by the traditions passed on by their ancestors. The underlying reason behind FGM is to control female sexuality, a taboo topic in cultures where FGM is practised. Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to a centuries old tradition is a strong encouragement to carry it out – but it can be overcome.

FGM is a global problem that demands a global solution. And there are several ways in which we can combat FGM, including:

  1. Educating women and communities – make girls and women aware of the harmful effects of FGM. This not only empowers women to make choices, but also educates the practitioners. Because men and boys tend to have greater power and influence in cultures that practice cutting, it is therefore also necessary to educate men.
  2. Increasing legal protection of FGM campaigners. Activists must work closely with governments and community leaders to put in place legal restrictions and ensure their enforcement.
  3. Supporting survivors. It is critical that local health workers are educated on how to provide the appropriate support and help to survivors, both physical and psychological.

Instead of quietly tolerating this practice that blights the lives of so many girls and women, authorities across the globe need to move swiftly not only to adopt a law to ban FGM, but to make sure that these laws are implemented and begin an awareness campaign that targets men, women and families, clerics, health-care providers, and traditional midwives. Governments should also ensure that health-care services, including mental-health services, are available for women who suffer pain and emotional distress as a result of FGM. It is a long and difficult journey, but those working to end FGM are heading in the right direction.

Be part of the change to end FGM and empower girls and women around the world. You can learn more about 28 Too Many’s work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates on the global movement to end FGM.

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