Ambassadors, activists, and allies reaffirmed their commitment to ending female genital mutilation (FGM) on Thursday as part of the United Nations’ International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF highlighted the need to end the harmful practice by 2030 as part of the Global Goals with an immersive exhibit of the short film “A Piece of Me” and a panel discussion at the UN headquarters in New York City.
UNFPA also launched its Humanitarian Action 2020 Overview and announced it will require $638 million to scale up programs to ensure access to reproductive health services and to prevent gender-based violence like FGM.
Filmmaker Sara Elgamal’s large three-panel installation of “A Piece of Me,” produced by the event company Somewherelse, allowed audiences to fully engross themselves in the Afar region of Ethiopia through the lens of three survivors of FGM. Rather than portray Zahra, Abida, and Khadija as victims, Elgamal wanted to create short films that did not focus on their trauma alone. The film, shot like a dreamy fashion editorial, is broken up into three parts and gives each woman a chance to share her story and hope for a future without FGM.
"Making the hijab look like capes, those sort of things I did on purpose, to really show that these women are powerful dignified, beautiful — they're complex," Elgamal told Global Citizen. "Because I think we need to look at women in that way, so that when we think of girls who are about to undergo FGM, we think about all that we're taking away from them."
Globally 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. Support for FGM is declining, but 68 million girls are still at risk of undergoing the procedure by 2030. Despite the prevalence of FGM, it happens quietly and is often overlooked.
The procedure practiced across countries and cultures across the world is thought to help a young girl transition to adulthood and marriage, but actually has long-term negative consequences. FGM is an internationally recognized human rights violation that threatens women’s health — it causes severe bleeding, a higher risk of HIV transmissions, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth, and an increased risk of newborn deaths.
Mariangela Zappia, ambassador and permanent representative of Italy to the UN, spoke on the panel. She said that she had not heard about FGM until she was working in Senegal early in her career. Now, she is dedicated to seeing the harmful practice put to an end.
"Female genital mutilation is about power imposed on women," she said during the panel discussion. "As our secretary-general reminds us very often, women need to get power and it’s not an empty concept or just a will to be able to influence, it is really power in a positive way, the power to advance our societies, it’s about changing social norms."
Zahra, a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), wants the world to know it's time to end this harmful practice.#SeeAPieceOfMe to be inspired by her story and join the global movement to #EndFGM: https://t.co/GcJuYYNmZbpic.twitter.com/8ewVXK5Pu2— UNFPA (@UNFPA) February 4, 2020
When activist and FGM survivor Maryum Saifee spoke at the event, she shared that it hasn’t always been easy to discuss what happened to her. Born in Texas, Saifee’s aunt performed FGM on her when she was on vacation in India, without her parents’ consent. When her family found out, they were horrified, but her father pushed her to use her voice to effect change.
It is not only the responsibility of women to end FGM, according to Saifee.
"I think it's so important for fathers to actually play a role in order to end FGM in a generation," she said.
Read More: FGM Among Us
While some of Saifee’s relatives disowned her for talking openly about her FGM experience, others were grateful that she opened their eyes to how common the practice still is.
"For far too long, it's been seen as cultural practices, we don't want to intervene," she said, "I think we need to say no — it is child sexual assault with a sharp object."
Saifee says the world must stand up against FGM and break the misconception that it only happens in developing countries.
Read More: FGM in the US: The Hidden Crime Next Door
"It takes everyone, and I don't think that the burden should only be on survivors to tell their sob stories and activate," she said. "Everybody needs to, whether you're in a country and you think, 'Oh, America isn’t an FGM country,' it absolutely is."
Saifee encourages people to educate themselves on FGM, amplify the voices of survivors, and take action in whatever way they can, whether it’s on social media or simply by talking about it.
"A lot of people just don't know enough about it," Elgamal said. "And they don't see how prevalent it is around the world and how many girls it affects and it's up to all of us, you know, to communicate about that, and to talk about it because it really does make a difference."