Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a worldwide problem, and if we continue to view it as anything other than that, then we can kiss the UN’s Global Goal for gender equality goodbye.
It’s very likely that, from wherever you’re reading this, FGM has happened, or is happening somewhere near you. Research led by gender equality organization Equality Now has shown that FGM is present in 92 countries globally — that’s almost half of all the countries in the world.
Yet, because of its high prevalence in Africa and Asia, it’s largely considered a “Global South issue,” despite the practice also taking place in the Global North.
Now, it’s critical that occurrences of FGM in the Global South are documented and attention is brought to them, and that they receive the funding they need to eradicate this issue. However, without a widely recognized understanding that FGM is also a Global North issue, we could be pushed further and further away from eradicating this form of gender-based violence once and for all. In fact, all people, everywhere should be concerned about FGM, as it occurs on every continent on the planet, except Antarctica.
If Northern countries do not understand this, then the practice could be perceived as being the Global South’s problem alone, making it seem — particularly to these western countries — as if gender inequality in so-called developing countries is more brutal than the gender inequality and the practices of gender-based violence experienced on their home land. They could, in turn, potentially develop a level of complacency toward women and girls experiencing FGM in the Global North. Yet, 137,000 women and girls living in the UK have experienced FGM, 125,000 in France, just under 95,000 in Canada, and over 500,000 are at risk of experiencing it in the US.
These numbers show that clearly, this is not the problem of emergent nations alone. We need to be louder about that so that we can tackle FGM for what it is: a global gender inequality problem.
There’s always been a history of othering when it comes to the way that FGM is viewed in western countries. This is something that anthropologist, Ellen Gruenbaum, noted in the book, Female Genital Cutting: Global North and South.
When the practice slowly started to become recognized as a global violation of human rights in the 1980s, western nations saw it as a faraway issue, as Gruenbaum writes:
“...in the Global North, the attention to female circumcision and FGM was heavily targeted toward the Global South. In the North, it was rare enough for people to know of the existence of such practices, but if they did, it was about the “them” of the South.”
This is something that still happens today. Activist and founder of the organization, Les Orchideés Rouges, Marie-Claire Kakpotia Moraldo, has almost a decade’s worth of advocating for the end of FGM. Speaking at the UN’s Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in 2023, she said: “The one thing I hear again and again is: ‘Oh, that’s just an African problem. An outdated tribal practice. That doesn’t happen here in Europe.’ But I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. FGM is a problem worldwide.”
She continued: “200 million women and girls have received FGM around the world. In Asian countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia, or Pakistan. In African countries like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. In Arab states like Iraq, Yemen, and Oman. In Russia. And in diaspora communities worldwide. So, if you think your country isn’t affected by FGM, you are wrong.”
If FGM is perceived as an obstacle facing the Global South alone, it then allows western countries to merely pity Global South countries for their ongoing issues. But pity doesn’t solve problems, it enables a power dynamic that is unhelpful for everyone, including the people experiencing this form of violence within the countries doing the pitying. You could even argue that pity has the potential to delay a collaborative effort to instill global long-term solutions to eradicate FGM once and for all.
According to Fiona Coyle, director at the End FGM European Network, these solutions include, “...increased political will, stronger laws and policies, increased community engagement, and increased investment to truly end this practice.”
The reason it’s important for the Global North to recognize FGM as its own issue as well is so that this human rights violation remains high on the global agenda, and that we see increased legislation against it, and a boost of investment toward eradicating it.
The fight against this practice needs immediate investment if we want to bring it to an end in time to achieve the UN’s Global Goals. Already, the WHO estimates that the treatment of FGM-related health complications currently costs health systems around $ 1.4 billion per year, and that number is expected to rise so long as the practice exists. The UNFPA estimates that it could cost $3.3 billion overall to achieve the UN’s target of eradicating FGM by 2030 through prevention and care programmes.
Despite this, the global fight against this form of violence is underfunded, and global funding for programs to eradicate FGM is declining, according to the UNFPA. If more noise is made about the matter in the Global North (home to the richest countries and those with the biggest global aid budgets) and the issue is prioritized by world leaders and funding decision-makers as one that affects people on almost every continent, it is likely that investment numbers could turn around.
It’s worth recognizing that the movement of those working against the phenomenon on the ground in western countries has grown, with a good number of grassroots organizations dedicated to educating people about FGM, and advocating for its end overall. The same goes for those in emergent countries where the practice is most prevalent. Their work is essential in the fight, but it must be supported by protective legislation and sustainable funding from those who have the power to make those decisions.