No Time for Inaction: female genital mutilation is global, but so is the movement to end it
According to official UNICEF figures, female genital mutilation (FGM) affects at least 200 million women and girls in 31 countries worldwide. We know these numbers are a woeful underrepresentation, as there are at least 60 other countries where the practice has been documented but no national-level data is available.
Eradicating female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide by 2030 is one of the commitments that all 193 UN member states agreed to when they signed onto the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Despite overwhelming evidence that female genital mutilation occurs in at least 90 countries, the efforts of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme to Eliminate Female Genital Mutilation the largest global program to accelerate the elimination of FGM are focused on just 17 countries. The Joint Programme targets Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen; this goes to show that there is a need for further investment and increased political will by all key actors including States to ensure that the practice is eliminated across all countries where it is practiced.
Because FGM affects women and girls on every continent except for Antarctica, there must be a global strategy and international cooperation to end the harmful practice by 2030.
Ahead of International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, here’s an overview of the global movement to end this harmful practice.
Ending FGM in Africa
An estimated 55 million girls under the age of 15 in 28 African countries have experienced or are at risk of experiencing FGM, which remains prevalent in parts of West, East, Central, and Northern Africa. This, despite the fact that laws against FGM are most common in the African continent where 28 countries have specific anti-FGM laws or legal provisions.
The move to end FGM in Africa has over the years gained traction on the continent with state and non-state actors at the international, regional, and national levels coalescing around actions designed to address this harmful practice.
These efforts have seen African governments commit to the global goal of ending FGM by 2030 in addition to launching a continental drive aimed at promoting and accelerating the collective abandonment of FGM at the community level through the development and enforcement of comprehensive anti-FGM laws; increasing and allocating resources to end FGM, and strengthening partnerships geared towards this.
Similarly, women’s rights defenders in Africa have banded together and are playing their part in contributing to the anti-FGM movement by holding states to account and exposing gaps that continue to put women and girls at risk of FGM. While some of them have been working under the auspices of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR) and galvanizing action at the regional and national levels, others such as Hope Beyond Foundation in Kenya have been leading the campaign at the community level.
As recognition of the global prevalence of the practice increases, activists from across the continent are leading the now global movement to end female genital mutilation. In 2020, Burkina Faso submitted a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the group of African States calling on governments globally to take “comprehensive, multisectoral and rights-based measures to prevent and eliminate female genital mutilation”.
Ending FGM in North America
FGM is widely known to take place amongst diaspora communities in the United States and Canada. Less known are the stories of FGM that occur within white, Christian communities like the one in which Jenny was raised in the US.
Due to a legal challenge that left the federal-level law against FGM in limbo, the US has had a patchwork approach to protecting women and girls from FGM for the past two years. However, in January 2021, thanks to the determination of anti-FGM activists across the country, the Stop FGM Act was signed into law. The STOP FGM Act grants federal protection from FGM, includes an updated definition of FGM, and provides a reporting requirement for federal agencies, in addition to linking FGM to interstate commerce. The US End FGM/C Network and survivor-activists such as Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, have celebrated other victories over the past year, with Massachusetts, Kentucky, Vermont, and Wyoming passing state-level laws.
In Canada, the End FGM/C Canada Network focuses on urging the Canadian government to acknowledge that FGM is an issue in Canada too, and to create a National Action Plan to support survivors and to protect girls at risk in Canada. They also work to encourage the Canadian government to take a lead internationally and focus more development aid on the human rights battle to end FGM worldwide.
Ending FGM in Asia
Despite evidence of FGM occurring in countries across South and South East Asia, not a single country has enacted a specific legal prohibition against female genital mutilation. The Orchid Project and Malaysia-based regional feminist NGO, the Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), who are supporting the development of the Asia Network to End FGM/C have established a platform of NGOs, activists, and researchers across the region to build stronger relationships and collaboration between organizations working across the region.
Sahiyo is an organization empowering Asian communities to end FGM through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement. Their groundbreaking exhibition, Faces for Change, highlighted the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) through portraits and personal stories of eight FGM survivors from the Dawoodi Bohra community in India.
Other organizations and activists working to address FGM in Asia include WeSpeakOut, founded by Masooma Ranalvi, Rena Herdiyani, the vice-chairperson of Kalyanamitra in Indonesia, and Saza Faradilla in Singapore.
Activists and groups working to end the practice across the region face monumental challenges in their work, compounded in many cases by the lack of reliable data, insufficient support and funding from the international community, and reluctance of national governments to take action on the issue, and in some cases a refusal by the national governments to recognize the existence of the practice at all.
Ending FGM in Europe
The European Union estimates that around 600,000 women and girls are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation in the EU and that a further 180,000 girls and women are at risk of undergoing the harmful practice in 13 European countries alone. As well as girls and women in diaspora communities, there is also evidence of the practice in non-diaspora communities in Russia and Georgia.
The End FGM European Network (End FGM EU) is a European umbrella network of 30 organizations working to ensure sustainable European action to end Female Genital Mutilation. For example, GAMs Belgium convenes the Community of Practice for Ending FGM which links activists from Europe with those in Africa.
Ending FGM in the Middle East
Both Yemen and Iraq have national prevalence data, but there is also evidence of the practice across the Middle East from Saudi Arabia and Oman to Iran and Kuwait. Only Iraq (Kurdistan) and Oman have specific laws or legal provisions that ban FGM.
Rayehe Mozafarian founded Stop FGM Iran after writing her thesis on female genital mutilation in 2014. In 2019, she successfully campaigned for Sunni religious leaders in Iran to issue a fatwa saying that ‘female circumcision’ is not obligatory. Rayehe continues to advocate in Iran to break the silence around female sexuality and female genital mutilation, and hopes to introduce a legal article in parliament.
The falsehood that ‘female circumcision’ is a form of Islamic worship perpetuates the practice across the Middle East. When Habiba al Hinai, an Omani women’s rights activist, started to research the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Oman she was shocked. Almost 4 in 5 of the 100 women she spoke to reported being cut.
Across the Middle East, efforts to end the practice often faces a backlash from conservative sections of society. With little national or international recognition of prevalence in the region, activists face an uphill struggle to secure the resources needed to end the practice and provide survivors with the support they need.
Sometimes the scale of the problem can feel overwhelming, it is important to remember that we are not alone in our fight to end the practice. FGM is global, but so is the movement to end it.