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Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Tradition Not Worth Holding On To

by James P. McAnulty
Friday, February 6, 2015

Today marks the twelfth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).  Today, we remember the more than 125 million women and girls from around the world who have undergone FGM/C.  Today, we renew the call to eradicate this harmful practice and to speak out clearly:  this is not a tradition worth holding on to. 


The good news is:  the global community is starting to see progress.  A ground-breaking UNICEF report found that the momentum on abandoning FGM/C is heading in the right direction.  The practice has been out-lawed in most countries where it still occurs – and some countries in sub-Saharan Africa have experienced dramatic reductions in prevalence rates.


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In the 29 countries where FGM/C remains most concentrated, two thirds of women and nearly two thirds of men believe the practice must end – an important step forward in breaking an outdated social norm.  In many of these countries, FGM/C has become less common among adolescent girls than middle-aged women – a sign that many mothers and fathers no longer insist on this harmful practice for their daughters.        


Influential leaders have also spoken out against FGM/C.   In 2012, the former Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu urged countries to abolish FGM/C, stating that “this practice … must be stopped as Islam does not support it.”  And, earlier this summer, during a town hall conference for the Young African Leaders’ Initiative, President Barack Obama spoke out against it, calling it a “tradition not worth holding on to.”


FGM/C is often rationalized as a “rite of passage” into adulthood or to prepare a girl for marriage.  It is carried out based on deeply-embedded attitudes and views on tradition, culture, hygiene, and sexuality.  In many communities, a social obligation exists to conform to the practice and a fear of stigma or even social exclusion if one refuses to conform.

Despite the persistence of such attitudes, we must be clear:  this practice has zero health benefits and has no place in any society.  In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the procedure carries both short and long-term health risks, including hemorrhaging, recurrent infections, complications in child birth, and even death – resulting in pain and suffering not only for the women and girls involved but for their families.


As articulated in the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, the United States Government views FGM/C as a form of gender-based violence. Our commitment to ending this practice is rooted in U.S. policy to protect and advance the rights of women and girls around the world.  This means engaging bilaterally and multilaterally with other governments and organizations to end this practice, whether through reporting on anti-FGM/C efforts –especially government-led efforts– in our Annual Human Rights Reports, or working within the United Nations system, such as joining the recently-passed Human Rights Council resolution on intensifying global efforts to end FGM/C.


In Somalia, FGM/C prevalence remains as high as 98 percent, primarily performed on girls four to eleven years of age.  The majority of women and girls are subjected to infibulation, the most severe form of FGM/C.  FGM/C is a leading factor in the high maternal mortality rate in Somalia -- a Somali woman’s life-time risk of maternal death is one in 14.  This is an unacceptably high figure, producing lasting and tragic losses on society in general.  Indeed, the Provisional Federal Constitution of Somalia describes FGM/C as cruel and degrading, equates it with torture, and prohibits the practice. 


We know that any and all efforts to eradicate FGM/C must include raising awareness of the harmful costs and consequences of this practice on society and overcoming the entrenched social attitudes that prolong its practice. Such efforts must include educating and empowering women – and their daughters – to discourage this practice.  Community-based approaches, involving village leaders and residents, midwives, educators, religious figures, elders, and government officials, continue to offer the most effective solutions to ending the practice. 


More must be done to strengthen these gains and protect future generations of girls from having to endure this form of violence.  Despite reductions in prevalence rates, population growth means that larger numbers of girls will remain subject to this practice – unless we take action to end it.


So, today, we renew our call.  Zero tolerance.  Once and for all.

James P. McAnulty is U.S. Special Representative for Somalia

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