For far too long, female genital mutilation (FGM) remained a well-kept secret, a taboo, a subject never to be discussed. The practice of cutting the external female genitalia was something that many people didn’t know was taking place in their own communities. Campaigners banged on doors for decades and were ignored. In some cases, even those affected by FGM either did not know they had undergone the procedure or did not know that the practice they had endured had a name.
Yet, it was incredibly widespread. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone the harmful practice, leaving many living with its long-term impacts.
FGM is a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human rights that negatively impacts women and girls’ bodily autonomy by taking away their right to choose. It can also cause severe bleeding and infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
For years, however, the practice thrived in a culture of taboo, meaning that the girls, women, and communities affected by it largely did not discuss it or speak of its physical or psychological consequences.
In the early 90s, not a lot was understood about FGM, including misconceptions about where and why it took place, making tackling it even harder. However, the practice has become an international human rights concern, with the largest global awareness campaign being established in 2008, and in 2012 the United Nations General Assembly officially designating Feb. 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
With this increased focus came greater understanding of how the reasons why FGM is carried out differ from country to country, from psychosexual reasons — where it is performed to control a woman’s sexuality or to ensure virginity before marriage — to social and cultural factors — where it is considered a rite of passage or initiation into womanhood, according to the UNFPA.
It was also assumed to only take place in specific parts of the world, such as Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East. Yet, the data revealed it was happening in North America, Australia, and Europe too.
Despite all this, there still remains much progress to be made. In 2023, over 4 million girls around the world are projected to be at risk of undergoing FGM. Several factors have contributed to this including the medicalisation of FGM, COVID-19 lockdowns, and overlapping crises such as rising poverty, inequality, and conflict.
But as important as it is to recognise the work that still needs to be done, it’s just as important to recognise the real milestones that have been reached and the work of grassroots organisations and activists to eradicate FGM for good. Here are eight things we should be celebrating, and a reminder to keep up the fight to put an end to FGM once and for all.
1. 51 countries have specifically prohibited the practice.
Most recently, Sudan made the landmark move to criminalise FGM in April 2020; a major milestone as Sudan has historically had the highest prevalence of FGM of any country in the world.
2. Today, a girl is one third less likely to undergo FGM than 30 years ago.
Over the last 25 years, the prevalence of FGM has declined globally and today a girl is one third less likely to undergo FGM than 30 years ago. In the 31 countries with nationally representative prevalence data, around 1 in 3 girls aged 15 to 19 today have undergone the practice versus 1 in 2 in the 1990s.
3. Over 6 million women and girls have received FGM protection and care services.
In 2021 alone, thanks to the joint programme of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and UNICEF, 515,688 women and girls received health, social, and legal services related to FGM — such as the National Child Helpline and child protection committees in Egypt, which helped provide quality services to girls at risk of or affected by FGM through providing consultations.
Intentional support such as this brought the total number of women and girls to have received FGM services since 2008 to well over 6 million. As a result, many women and girls receiving these services have gained self-esteem, self-awareness, and emotional resilience after traumatic FGM experiences.
4. There has been an increase in opposition to FGM among men and boys.
While FGM was generally regarded as a “women’s issue,” opposition rates among men and boys are on the rise in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Sudan.
In fact, there are now anti-FGM groups such as Men End FGM. Their founder, Tony Mwebia told Global Citizen: “Men have not been fully engaged in the quest to end FGM, therefore we need to actively engage men and boys at all levels and rally them to speak up. If you look at all the reasons for FGM they directly or indirectly point to increasing the marriageability of women and girls, hence we cannot afford to slow down on the engagement of men and boys. I opine that this could be the last and final kick that has been missing to end FGM in our generation.”
5. More communities are publicly pledging to commit to eradicating FGM.
In 2021, more than 3.4 million people (including community leaders) across 4,475 communities around the world made public declarations to commit to eliminating FGM — a 48% increase from 2020. This data indicate that the social and cultural perceptions of FGM are being challenged by communities.
Just this month, Chief Zanzan Karwor, Chairperson of Liberia's National Council of Chiefs and Elders, made a historic declaration announcing a permanent ban on practicing FGM. The announcement was made on behalf of the traditional leaders at an event to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on Feb. 6.
The declaration is groundbreaking as FGM has previously been supported by traditional leaders, and their support is critical in ending the practice. In addition, Zoes (traditional practitioners of FGM) attended the ceremony and agreed to no longer perform the practice.
6. Grassroots initiatives are leading the way.
It has been shown that the most effective way to end FGM in a community is by engaging the community at a grassroots level, rather than top-down initiatives — because even when legislation is passed at the highest level, it can continue to occur.
“Legislation is simply not the only way forward," Naana Otoo-Oyortey from FORWARD, a women-led organisation working to end violence against women and girls, told Global Citizen. "The majority of these laws are not effectively enforced and some co-exist alongside customary laws that contradict these national laws on FGM.”
The success stories of grassroots initiatives leading the way on this are plentiful. In Kenya and Uganda, for example, Pokot elders came together to engage all stakeholders in initiatives towards the fight against FGM, which led to a reduction in cases.
Meanwhile, SAFE Maa, a community-led project that works with the Maasai people in Kenya, has been using performing arts to engage with communitie on issues such as FGM to great success. In 2019, the grassroots group became the first to successfully guide a community to publicly declare FGM abandonment.
How did they achieve this? Eight years of visiting community members’ homes, listening to their concerns, and performing skits and songs that illustrated the risks associated with the practice.
7. February 6 was designated as International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
In 2012, the UN General Assembly officially designated Feb. 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The day was created with the aim of amplifying and directing global efforts on the elimination of this practice, and it certainly has been instrumental in getting FGM on the agenda.
This awareness day was inspired by one particular woman, Nigeria's First Lady Stella Obasanjo, who, on Feb. 6, 2003, officially declared “Zero Tolerance to FGM” in Africa during a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee on traditional pratices affecting the health of women and children. Since then, this day has been observed around the world.
8. Survivors are speaking out and leading the movement to end FGM.
From Leyla Hussein to Purity Soinato Oiyie, it is the voices of survivors such as these that are truly leading the movement to make FGM history.
Recognising the importance of a survivor-led movement to end FGM, Jaha Dukureh, a renowned activist, UN Women Ambassador for Africa, and a survivor of FGM, hopes to inspire others to speak out about their experiences. “We must support women and girls, especially survivors, to lead change and be role models," she says. "When a survivor speaks to her own people, it touches a chord.”