UN Study shows female genital mutilation/cutting on the decline in Africa

A new United Nations report shows that almost 2,000 communities across Africa abandoned female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) last year, marking significant change across many nations and communities on the continent.

According to the report, issued jointly by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a total of 8,000 communities have renounced the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting.

graph representing FGM rate decline

Yesterday, February 6th, was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM/C on which UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin stated:

These encouraging findings show that social norms and cultural practices are changing, and communities are uniting to protect the rights of girls and women.

According to the UN, each year, around three million women and girls – about 8,000 each day – face the risk of mutilation or cutting. An estimated 130 to 140 million girls and women have undergone the practice, mostly in Africa and some countries in Asia and the Middle East.

FGM/C refers to a number of practices, which involve cutting away part or all of the external genitalia. Many see the practice as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, particularly because it offers no health benefits, causes severe pain and has both immediate and long-term health consequences. The issue of female genital mutilation, sometimes called female genital cutting or circumcision is the prototypical example brought up in debates about moral and cultural relativism and the universality of human rights.

The moral question raised: What should we do when generally accepted international human rights standards conflict with long-standing cultural practices? This question was one of the very first questions in political theory that struck a deep chord with me. On one hand, I believe strongly in the importance of protecting human rights, for all. On the other hand, I know that the rights-framework has limitations and imperialism often comes to the Third World and the Global South in the guise of protectionism. So, what’s a girl to think?

Ultimately, for me it comes down to the fact that cultural relativists think about culture as an essential attribute of self-determination and of sovereignty, while thinking of international human rights law as the arbitrary dictates of the more powerful nations of the world. But I don’t think of culture that way. Sure it is important and as someone whose family legacy includes challenging imperialism and colonization, it is particularly important to me. I simply don’t think that culture is inviolable, either. It’s also possible for cultural practices to disenfranchise the less powerful and more marginalized in any given society – and for that reason, I’m not a cultural relativist. Culture is important, but it is not sacrosanct and above reproach. To counter imperialist forces that might use culture for it’s own ends (think of all the backlash from many feminists around the world when the invasion of Iraq was disingenuously justified due to Sadaam Hussien’s horrible treatment of women), we have to make sure that the most marginalized folks themselves are represented and are able to set the agenda for this kind of campaign.

In 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF came together to set up the Joint Programme for the Acceleration of the Abandonment of FGM/C. This strategy aims to make change in FGM/C practices by utilizing culturally sensitive, human rights-based approaches that link countries and communities together and then promotes a collective abandonment of the practice. And as we know, major socio-cultural shifts don’t happen in a vacuum, so the strategy engages folks from all sectors of society including traditional and religious leaders, women, men and young girls themselves. Together, the community discusses the harmful effects of the practice and debunks the notion that it’s a religious requirement.  The initiative is being carried out in 15 African countries: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

Yesterday’s report shows that throughout Africa, more than 18,000 community education sessions were held, almost 3,000 religious leaders publicly declared that the rite should end, and more than 3,000 media features have covered the subject – all of which led to almost 2,000 communities declared their abandonment of the practice during 2011.

To mark the Day and the release of the new report, Dr. Osotimehin and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake issued a joint statement renewing their commitment to put an end to the practice.

“We call on the global community to join us in this critical effort. Together, we can abolish FGM/C in one generation and help millions of girls and women to live healthier, fuller lives.”

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