In the June 18 issue of “The Economist,” the magazine published two potentially harmful articles about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM). These articles state that because the practice persists despite programs fighting to end this human rights abuse, an alternative, less extreme form of FGM, should be considered in an effort to reduce the harm done by the more severe forms. The Orchid Project, an organization focused on ending FGM, described the assumptions of the articles as “misguided” and they draw “damaging conclusions”. We at the AHA Foundation couldn’t agree more.
According to UNICEF, the United Nation’s agency for child rights, more than 200 million women and girls across three continents have undergone FGM. Despite these high numbers “overall, an adolescent girl today is about a third less likely to be cut than 30 years ago.” Attitudes are changing: recent UNICEF data shows that “the majority of people in the countries where FGM is practiced believe it should end, but continue to compel their daughters to undergo the procedure because of strong social pressure.” So, the world has made progress in ending FGM but clearly needs to do more to address this practice, which can have physical and/or psychological consequences on a woman or a girl, as a way to speed change.
But where “The Economist” articles do the most damage is suggesting a “lessor form” of FGM, such as pricking a girl’s genitals, to reduce the negative impact the practice has on its victims. At the AHA Foundation, we believe that FGM in all forms is a human rights abuse. There are no health benefits associated with the practice and it can cause lasting physical and psychological consequences.
We reject the notion that a woman or girls’ worth is dependent upon her virginity. We believe that a woman or girl’s genitals should not be subject to any kind of practice that suggests her sexuality must be controlled as a way to ensure family honor, marriageability or social acceptance by her community. Additionally, evidence shows a direct link between FGM and early marriage. Often upheld by deeply entrenched social norms, FGM is also sometimes associated to religious beliefs although no religious scriptures require it, and many girls are cut as a precursor to or prerequisite for marriage. Early marriage is also used as a means to ensure virginity or sexual ‘purity.’
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control completed a study in 2012 with results showing that “approximately 513,000 women and girls in our country were at risk for FGM or its consequences.” Perhaps what was most shocking about the findings was that this number is three times higher than an earlier estimate based on 1990 data. In addition, the number of girls at risk for FGM among girls younger than 18 years of age is four times higher than that of previous estimates. Recognizing that FGM is a fundamental violation of the rights of girls that is often upheld by a deeply entrenched social norm, and that some erroneously associate as a necessary part of their religious beliefs (no religious scriptures require it), ending FGM calls for an integrated approach: legislation, education, and community participation. Even though the practice has continued for more than a thousand years, there is evidence that FGM can end in one generation within a population group. It certainly can happen in the U.S.
Instead of advocating for another form of FGM that would continue to endanger lives of girls around the world and hinder hard-won progress, experts, advocates, survivors of FGM need to scale up approaches that have made a difference in the past three decades. Securing funding to achieve a coordinated and data-driven effort is another prerequisite for ensuring changes are made at a faster pace.
An integrated approach combined with culturally-sensitive programs that include community dialogue and education about human rights and fundamental values with children, adults and religious leaders will allow families and community members to discuss alternative ways of doing what is best for their daughters without having them undergo FGM, in any form. We can end FGM; the first critical step is rejecting the practice outright.
Past Blogs on Ending FGM in the US