By Jaya Ramachandran
NEW YORK (IDN) - While there has been an overall decline in the prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) across countries, this progress is likely to be offset by rapid population growth in states where FGM occurs, unless efforts to eliminate the practice are renewed in light of recent research, and urgently stepped up, UN Women has warned.
In a statement on the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6, UN Women – United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – refers to a 2016 report of the UN Secretary-General. The single largest factor influencing the continuation of female genital mutilation is the desire for social acceptance and avoidance of social stigma, the report found.
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, UN Women's Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General, writes in a blog: "The existence of the practice of FGM concentrates some of the most intractable problems we face in trying to change the future for the world’s girls."
She adds: "The cutting and sewing of a young child’s private parts so that she is substantially damaged for the rest of her life, has no sensation during sex except probably pain, and may well face further damage when she gives birth, is to many an obvious and horrifying violation of that child’s rights."
Furthermore: "It is a kind of control that lasts a lifetime. It makes a mockery of the idea of any part being truly private and underlines the institutionalized way in which decisions over her own body have been taken from that girl – one of some 200 million currently. Worse, it is quite likely that those children will not finish school, have limited formal employment prospects and may well be married to a much older man and become pregnant within a short space of reaching puberty."
The high rates of obstetric problems and maternal death among the same communities that practice FGM and early marriage are no coincidence, according to Mlambo-Ngcuka. The high rates of gender inequality, low educational attainment for girls, poor health, and cyclical grinding poverty in those same communities are no coincidence either.
"They are all linked, and they practically ensure that those girls have domestic responsibilities and academic deficiencies that condemn them to a future with very short horizons. It is more likely that a girl will be subjected to FGM if her mother has little or no education. With those limitations come multiple and repeating missed opportunities: personal wellbeing, social growth, economic diversity and community resilience."
This is not a problem that can be legislated away. Nor is it necessarily understood to be a problem by the communities themselves, who traditionally see it as conferring value on the child; an often secret ritual that is, as far as it is known, normal, cleansing, and correct, notes the UN Women Executive Director Mlambo-Ngcuka
"The strength of the cultural practices and norms that put a higher status on girls that have been subjected to FGM makes it especially challenging to stop FGM in communities where girls have little perceived value anyway," she adds.
Hence solutions demand many aspects of what is normal and valuable to be changed all together. Media play an important role in broadening the range of known information, as do individual advocates, and men and boys who are increasingly being included in previously restricted conversations.
Rapid population growth in countries where FGM occurs has brought both an increase in the absolute numbers of girls affected to date by the current norms – and heightened urgency to break negative cycles that include low levels of education, restricted opportunity, and deep inequalities, writes the UN Women Executive Director.
"This is especially important in the light of sharpened focus on the employment of women and youth as a major driver and catalyst of poverty eradication and inclusive development," she adds.
Mlambo-Ngcuka points out that worldwide; 70 million girls were born in 2015 alone. "It is up to us to fulfil the promise of Planet 50-50 by 2030 so that these girls come of age with choices for their future, in a gender equal world."
The statement by UN Women underlines the importance of education to address negative social norms as has been demonstrated in Egypt, where the reduction in the risk of girls undergoing FGM has been linked both to the educational attainment of their mothers, as well as of other women in their communities.
"We have witnessed how the powerful personal testimony and advocacy of activists such as Jaha Dukureh in The Gambia can bring increased understanding of the issues to local communities and amplify the voices of a growing movement calling upon leaders to put an end to this practice," the statement adds.
"The collection and analysis of data is crucial to better tailor our interventions in light of the specific factors associated with the practice globally," declares UN Women, and pleads for further research in areas outside Africa because FGM is also prevalent in Latin America, South-East Asia and areas of the Middle East, as well as meanwhile in the United States and United Kingdom.
"We must pay greater attention to the risks associated with migration and the greater movement between borders," advises UN Women. "Women and girls are still extremely vulnerable, even in countries which are not traditionally associated with the practice of FGM, if families on the move maintain the practice."
The statement notes that increasing numbers of countries have extraterritorial legislation for their citizens practising female genital mutilations in other jurisdictions, and hold those who practice to account. In The Gambia, for example, the adoption of legislation has created an enabling environment for the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children to support those who have carried out FGM to acquire skills to find alternative livelihoods.
"It has also empowered women to take an active role in protecting other women and girls and increased community awareness of FGM’s harmful impacts."
UN Women warns that legal structures, however, are only part of the solution; they must be complemented by multiple prevention strategies, for example mobilizing communities, and influencing social norm change, and engaging those who can bring about those changes, such as men and boys, civil society and faith-based leaders. An encouraging example is Somalia, where the Y-PEER network has helped mobilize young people, including young men to discuss sensitive issues, such as female genital mutilation.
FGM is inextricably linked with other forms of gender inequality, such as violence against women and girls, and other harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriages, notes UN Women, adding: "To accelerate progress towards ending FGM, we are working with governments, local administrations and civil society partners to address the root causes that perpetuate unequal power relations between women and men, and also with sister agencies, such as UNICEF and UNFPA, on their long-standing campaigns." [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 February 2017]
IDN is UN Women's media compact partner.
Photo: UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Credit: Marco Grob.
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