Too often we hear female genital mutilation can never be eradicated

Bethan Cansfield | Jul 03, 2015

As someone who works in women’s rights, one of the most common statements I hear is ‘female genital mutilation can never be eradicated’. Given that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) and country prevalence rates are as high as 98%, you can’t blame some people’s scepticism that this form of violence will ever be abandoned. However, we know that ending FGM is possible, including by challenging harmful social norms, engaging all of the community and by taking a holistic and multi-sectoral approach. We also know that women’s rights organisations have a particular role to play in tackling FGM, by both creating and sustaining social change.

3.3 million girls are at risk each year

FGM is practised in at least 28 countries in Africa, as well as in parts of Asia and the Middle East. An estimated 3.3 million girls are at risk each year. It is practised across all educational levels and social classes and occurs among various religious groups. Prevalence rates vary significantly from country to country, ranging from nearly 98% in Somalia, 91% in Egypt and 94% in Sierra Leone, to less than 1% in Uganda. In the UK, 60,000 girls under 15 are at risk of FGM and 137,000 girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM.

FGM is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, including the right to physical and mental integrity, right to highest attainable standard of health, right to be free from all forms of discrimination against women, right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and in extreme cases, right to life. Governments have an obligation to prevent FGM and ensure survivors (both girls and women) have access to appropriate and quality services.

What works in supporting abandonment of FGM

Evidence is building on what works in supporting communities to abandon FGM – including the importance of challenging harmful social norms (shared expectations regarding how people should behave) and working with whole communities (including women, men, girls, and community and religious leaders).

In Ethiopia, Womankind’s partner Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (Siiqqee) is delivering community-based work to prevent violence against women and girls, including FGM. This includes supporting the development of women-only self-help groups. These groups support women’s empowerment and provide a space to discuss issues such as FGM. Siiqqee also works with the broader community to challenge social norms in relation to violence against women and girls. One way it does this is through community conversation groups, which are participatory discussions between community members on different issues.

Our recent research found that Siiqqee’s work has shifted individuals’ attitudes and behaviours in relation to FGM. Individuals who participated in the programme were more likely to report FGM cases to the authorities, to advise community members about the health risks of FGM and to enact community sanctions against those who practised FGM. One self-help group member told us: “We have learnt that if a woman is circumcised, it will be difficult for her during birth. I know that female genital mutilation has an effect on women’s health.” The research also found there was evidence that Siiqqee has shifted the wider social norms, including gender roles in the community.

Another example is KMG’s (Ethiopian local women’s organisation) programme which focused on empowering women and their communities to bring an end to FGM and other harmful traditional practices. The evaluation of the programme found that before the intervention nearly 87% of villagers said they would have circumcised their daughters as per tradition. After the intervention less than 5% of villagers said they would circumcise their daughters indicating that attitudes have changed significantly. Read more about KMG’s work to end FGM here.

We also produced a short animation explaining how women’s organisations work to empower communities to abandon FGM – you can watch it here.

What now?

Moving forward it is vital that the international community recognises and builds on what works, including the importance of supporting local women’s rights organisations to end FGM through flexible and long-term funding.

So the evidence is clear, the international community should recognise that whilst working with men and boys is important, it must form one part of a bigger gender transformative and community-wide approach which empowers women and girls and involves women’s right organisations.

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