Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM as it is commonly known, refers to a procedure that intentionally mutates female genitalia for the purpose of religious or cultural tradition. Unlike male circumcision, the practice bears no health benefits for women and there are serious physical and psychological risks. The number of women and girls affected is enormous – more than 100 million have undergone the procedure – and it is still performed on some 2 million girls a year in many Western, Eastern and North Eastern African countries.
The following is a comprehensive list of the African countries that practice FGM and the percentage of women aged 15-49 years who have been affected by it:
|Burkina Faso (76%)
|Sierra Leone (70%)
||Central AR (43%)
|Cote d’Ivoire (43%)
|DR of Congo (3%)
These statistics do not include girls under the age of 15 so it is safe to assume that the true numbers are considerably higher. In many communities it is believed that if the procedure is carried out between infancy and 15 years of age it will prevent sexually deviant behaviours later in life.
These numbers are nothing new. As far back as the early 1950’s, the UN commission on the Status of Women and other UN bodies formed a consensus that the practice of FGM was completely contradictory with universal human rights principles, including that of equality, non discrimination on the basis of gender/sex, the right to life when the procedure results in death, and the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Ultimately the practice negates a women’s autonomy over her body and the right to make an informed decision about a procedure that will have enduring physical and psychological effects.
FGM is often performed as a coming of age ritual and there is a widely held and long standing belief that only girls who have had their genitals cut are suitable for marriage. In this regard the practice promises important social and economic security for women which makes it difficult to eradicate.
Not surprisingly, FGM is a big concern for those in the social development field. To date it has proved difficult to protect women from the practice as it is so intricately tied to history, culture and tradition. In fact, we have barely made a dent in the global practice of FGM. The current prevalence is roughly the same as it was nearly a decade ago and we are still searching for a way to end one of the most pervasive and silently endured affronts to women’s human rights.
As young development workers we have to address the challenge of how best to negotiate the protection of women and girls in the face of cultural and political obstacles. We have to strengthen existing approaches, such as the involvement of religious leaders in Sudan and Egypt, and we must also look to innovative new approaches like the involvement of young people in gender and sexual health education programs. This will require a far greater effort by social development workers, communities and governments, because eradicating the practice requires fundamental changes in societal attitudes and gender hierarchies.
Moving forward, FGM will continue to be a key area for social development workers as it undermines the realisation of universal human rights and at least two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), namely the achievement of gender equality and the improvement of maternal health. The achievement of the MDGs will be seriously hampered and unachievable if the practice is to continue. We must therefore begin to have serious discussions about how to tackle the problem of cultural traditions and rituals when they damage women’s mental and physical health and deny the full enjoyment of women’s human rights.