Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the practice of cutting and partially or entirely removing the external female genitalia, and also includes any other harm or injury caused to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
While activists around the world and organizations such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and Unicef have been working tirelessly to eradicate the harmful procedure, countries in East and Southern Africa are experiencing a new barrier to bringing it to an end: cross-border FGM.
This is when girls living in a country where the tradition is banned are taken across national borders to a country where it is not against the law in order to undergo FGM.
This year in the effort to raise awareness around this form of gender-based violence, the UNFPA’s East and Southern Africa Region (ESARO) decided to focus on cross-border FGM as theme of the organization’s Zero Tolerance for FGM campaign over the month of February.
To better understand the impact of FGM and cross-border FGM in Africa, Global Citizen spoke to UNFPA ESARO Gender Specialist, Julie Diallo.
Julie Diallo, UNFPA Gender Specialist for East and Southern Africa.
How has the pandemic affected the practice of FGM, and the effort to end it?
The coronavirus pandemic really shed light on how all the progress that we have achieved in East Africa, but also on the continent, is very fragile. We have achieved a lot of progress in ending FGM, but really the pandemic showed us how fragile that progress was.
Just to give you an example, in some contexts, the recourse to FGM is linked to other harmful practices, for example child marriage, because FGM can be a prerequisite in some communities to be married at a certain age.
What we have seen is that in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, communities and families aren’t really coping with the burden of the pandemic and the socio-economic impact it has, and have had to recourse to negative coping strategies, one of them being child marriage. A consequence [of this], is FGM which is a prerequisite to child marriage.
But it’s really difficult because at the moment, we have only anecdotal evidence about the increase of female genital mutilation and child marriage in the COVID-19 context.
What progress has been made so far in eradicating FGM in the Southern and Eastern African region?
I’d say there’s actually really good news coming from the continent and also from East Africa. The first one is that we have seen a decline in the practice of FGM, among girls aged 15-49. We have seen that in Kenya, we have seen that in Burkina Faso, in Egypt, and to some extent in Ethiopia, so that’s really the first good news.
The second good news, when we look at the member states, so the African member states, we have to look at the way they have things put in place, like progressive policies and legislation, to end the practice. So if you look at East Africa, in the majority of the country where FGM is practiced, there is a national legislation criminalizing female genital mutilation; and many member states have an action plan, a strategy to really end harmful practices.
And if we look at the continental level, the African Union level, ending FGM is one of the priorities of the African Union.
And the third good news, and this is, for me, the most important and it comes from Ethiopia; what we are seeing is that the percentage of women who think that FGM should be stopped has almost doubled from 1994 to 2017. This is really great, because this shows you that women and communities are questioning the practice of FGM, and they are really changing, shifting those social norms that are driving the practice and driving the acceptance of the practice. So we have a decline in the practice, but also a decline in the acceptance of the practice.
This is good news, but there is a lot that still needs to be done.
How would eradicating FGM further the global effort to achieving gender equality?
Ending FGM is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal [for gender equality], it’s one of the key elements to achieving the sustainable goal, because it’s about ensuring that women and girls have autonomy over their body, that they have that decision-making over their body, and that they live a life free from violence.
FGM is a harmful practice that is a form of gender-based violence, so it’s really at the core of achieving the sustainable development goal.
What are the emerging issues around FGM in the East and Southern African region?
We have made some progress in the continent but what we are seeing are emerging trends that are really pushing back [that] progress, and one of them is cross-border FGM.
We did a recent study, under the UNFPA and Unicef joint program on FGM, with the Kenya anti-FGM board, specifically on cross-border FGM; and what we saw is that 71% of the respondents that we had information on from Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, said that they cross into Kenya to access FGM services.
There were several factors for this. In the border area, you have a community that really shares similar traditions, and especially traditions related to intermarriage, and we know that the traditions relating to intermarriage perpetuate practices like FGM as they perpetuate practices like child marriage.
The second factor is that we see that in some countries FGM services are not available where they are; this is what pushes them to cross the border. In other contexts, one of the factors is that the FGM services are more affordable and of “better quality” in a neighboring country. Another thing is that there is a fear of [being arrested] if you perform FGM in your native country, the thinking you would be less prosecuted if you practice FGM in a neighboring country.
This is very important because this really shows the importance of ensuring at a regional level that we have coordinated actions to end cross-border FGM, and that we have strong mechanisms to look for cross-border FGM.
The UNFPA ESARO is focusing on cross-border FGM for its 2021 campaign, why is it the main focus for this year?
We’re really focusing on cross-border FGM for several reasons. The first one that I’ll mention is that we are seeing this as an emerging practice, so we really need to shed light on it and to really accelerate efforts to end cross-border FGM.
The second thing is what we have done with different African member states, we have been looking at cross-border FGM and really trying to understand deeper to see what the drivers are behind this practice, to really see how we can better address this issue.
We also have to celebrate the efforts that the member states have done to end cross-border FGM. The issue of cross-border FGM really arose in 2018, at the AU FGM summit. There we had Kenya, Uganda, and other member states come together and see that there was a need to address this issue on cross-border FGM.
Just one year after that, under the Kenyan government, came the first ever ministerial meeting to end cross-border FGM. Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya came together, they signed a declaration to end cross-border FGM. It’s the first original action plan that has really strategic action to end cross-border FGM and the good news is that the action plan is being fully implemented.
What progress has been made on ending cross-border FGM in the region, and what more needs to be done?
A lot of things need to be done, but I can just share some of the results. In terms of the action plan, if you take Kenya, you can see that last year there was an increase of reporting of FGM cases along the Kenya and Uganda border.
The Kenyan police rescued 10 girls who crossed from Uganda to access FGM services. This is really good news. If you take Uganda, Uganda as a government allocated $50 million to the district on the border between Uganda and Kenya, just to ensure that cross-border FGM interventions were implemented. In Tanzania there are guidelines on how to deal with cross-border FGM. These are really good results and we need to continue to develop that.
But what needs to happen, there are two things. At the regional level what needs to happen is that we need to have a regional legislation that looks at FGM. That regional legislation needs to ensure that there is a harmonization of offences and a minimum penalty between the member states. This is very critical and we need to accompany that with strong regional monitoring mechanisms. In the borders, we need to ensure that service providers, for example law enforcers, are equipped and that they can really use that legislation to do their work.
Another very important thing we need is to make sure that we have equipped and quality health services for survivors of FGM, to ensure that those survivors of FGM have access to social support in those areas where we see a scarcity of services.
What can members of the public do to support the UNFPA’s efforts to eradicate cross-border FGM?
The great thing is that as an individual you can do a lot of things. The first thing is to really speak up. Speak up about FGM, speak about the issues. Connect with local campaigns, there are plenty of FGM campains run by governments, run by women’s organizations, on the continent but also inside each country.
The other thing I would say is to pledge, pledge to end FGM and to do that you can go to the UNFPA website and there you can pledge as part of our campaign.
If you can, give, because donations, whether small or big, can change lives. The other thing is to partner with individuals or with organizations that focus on FGM, and for that you can contact a UNFPA office in the country where you are, and we will put you in touch with the right organization.
Finally, share. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and share our message on FGM and share the data; because the data really shows the issue. And really share the story, the story of suffering, but most importantly share the story of resilience, of mobilization around FGM.
What are the best ways that members of the public can show support for survivors of FGM?
Really be there as an individual, take the sisterhood approach and be there. In each of the countries there are organizations that provide services and support to survivors of FGM. It’s important for that person to reach out to those organisations. Also you can reach out to the government, the offices of the government dedicated to FGM, because they can let you know what services are available. Finally feel free to contact UNFPA offices wherever you are, we’ll be able to tell you where you can start and share information with you.
I want to also say, as a last note, that ending FGM is really critical. We have the responsibility to end FGM, for the right of all women and girls, so they can have the right to decide what happens to their body.