A groundbreaking report on worldwide female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) was released by UNICEF last month, revealing new data that brings the international effort to eradicate FGM/C a step closer to reaching its goal. Now, we have a clearer picture of where it is most prevalent and (perhaps more importantly) why it is so common in these parts of the world.
“This report is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics and data analysis on FGM/C to date,” said UNICEF Statistics and Monitoring Specialist Claudia Cappa. “It’s extremely important because it illustrates, for the first time, what we know about how widespread is the practice is, the attitudes surrounding the practice and the reasons why this practice is continued. It’s also the first report that includes data for countries like Iraq for which we didn’t have national figures.”
In all cultures, there are certain societal practices that its members come to deem acceptable over time. For nearly 30 countries in Africa, FGM/C is one such practice— and there are centuries of tradition and more than 125 million women who have been cut to back up that fact. However, world health officials were recently surprised to learn of the resistance growing at a rapid rate amongst these cultures. More men and women than ever before are refusing to let tradition be an excuse for subjecting a woman’s body to the physical and psychological toll of mutilation. According to the report, “prevalence has dropped by as much as almost half among adolescent girls in Benin, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria.”
One 10-year-old girl named Kheiriya Abidi from Boorama town, North-West Somalia, made a personal decision to not undergo cutting. Her story was elaborated in an article on the UNICEF website where she discussed her fear of blood and the pain she would experience were she to give in to the urging of her peers. Despite the societal pressures, Kheiriya remains an outspoken advocate for eradicating FGM/C.
UNICEF Senior Child Protection Specialist Francesca Moneti gives us a good idea of the confusion that exists for many mothers living in these cultures:
“I do what I do because I know that you expect me to do it, and vice versa... So, I may not support cutting, and you may not support it, but I see you cutting your girl, and you see me cutting my girl, and you think I support it because you see me cutting my girl – but we don’t talk.”
Based on what the world now knows about the prevalence, and reasons for the prevalence, of FGM/C, I believe the struggle for the international community in the coming years will be to shift the movement’s primary focus from educating to advocating. According to Moneti, “you have to make visible the fact that people in their private sphere don’t support the practice.” We can make this happen by encouraging the members of these communities to be outspoken in their opposition to FGM/C and seek out ways to foster honest public discussions about it.
In countries like Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt (where instances of FGM/C are in the 90th percentile) more people like Kheiriya are needed to serve as advocates of this evolving attitude. Only then can we reveal FGM/C for what it really is: an extremely unsafe, even deadly, practice that is no longer deemed acceptable by society.
By Sabrina Willard