February 6 has been marked as an International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation since 2003.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or Female Genital Cutting (FGC), is a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It comprises all procedures where the female genitals are deliberately cut, injured or changed, from removal of the clitoris to cutting and repositioning of the labia, where there's no medical reason for this to be done.
The reasons why female genital mutilations
are performed vary from one region to another as well as over time, and include a mix of sociocultural factors within families and communities. However, its cultural and social acceptance hinders attempts to end the practice, and we must learn from the work of grassroots women’s rights organisations who are helping to change the attitudes of whole communities.
A Harmful Traditional Practice
“One day, the old mothers came to perform the ritual. I was told not to cry,” recalls Olerai, from Kenya, who was cut at the age of nine.
Olerai is one of approximately 200 million
FGM survivors worldwide. It is practiced across all educational backgrounds, social classes, and religious groups
in Africa, parts of Asia, the Middle East, across Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. FGM has been classified as a Harmful Traditional Practice with an estimated 3.3 million girls at risk each year. Some of the wideheld beliefs behind the practice are that it exerts control over women’s sexuality and their bodies, making them more desirable to potential husbands.
In communities with high prevalence of FGM, mothers often fear that their daughters will be socially excluded if they refuse to be cut. “I didn't understand why my parents let it happen to me. It was a terrible experience, but I had no choice,” confesses 18-year-old Jennifer from Kaijado County. In the communities where women are under pressure to take on the roles of wives and mothers, FGM is seen as an essential rite of passage.
“The pain was unbearable”
After being cut, Olerai bled a great deal: “I had to stay home for three months to recover and I couldn't stand up - the pain was unbearable.” FGM causes severe bleeding and health issues
, including cysts, infections, complications in childbirth and sometimes death. It doesn’t end there, the effects of FGM are much broader than its physical aspects, further contributing to gender inequality. When girls are cut, they usually get married early, leave school and are forced to become fully dependent on their husbands. Financial dependency undermines their social position and often leads to violence.
Fighting the root causes of FGM
In order to fight FGM effectively, it is critical to understand that its prevalence often derives from the lack of knowledge about its consequences. Introducing laws banning FGM is essential, but often it’s not enough. To eliminate FGM completely, the change has to come from where its roots lie: from patriarchal structures driving gender inequality within the communities.
Our partner organisations - FIDA Kenya and Siiqqee in Ethiopia - have been conducting successful grassroots campaigns through educating and informing women and girls about FGM and their rights as women, as well as engaging with men and key stakeholders in the community to challenge inequalities.
In Ethiopia, Askale and other women trained by Siiqqee, are now raising awareness of Harmful Traditional Practices such as early marriage and FGM, as well as, rape and abduction within their communities: “I have started to inform those who do not have the knowledge,” Askale told us. “I worry about other women and I feel their pain.”
In Kenya, thanks to the training provided by FIDA Kenya, young Maasai girls have the confidence to oppose FGM. Jackline, aged 15, has claimed her rights and has not been cut despite facing pressure from her peers: “When other girls discriminate me and say that I won’t be a full woman, I tell them it is none of their business. It’s my life.” FIDA’s holistic project is tackling FGM by educating, supporting and empowering women.
FIDA also works with the women who were performing FGM, working with them to become ambassadors against the practice.
Marisa had a well-paid and much sought-after job, responsible for holding a girl’s legs open when FGM was performed. Now, after working with FIDA, she’s teaching girls to reject it and embrace education. Being a campaigner in this environment can be extremely challenging: “I often experience violence from girls’ parents who want to continue the tradition. For me, it doesn't matter if I'm abused, as long as I manage to pass my message further.” Training village chiefs and elders in the Maasai communities is also crucial ending FGM. With their social authority and respect, the elders “can teach their communities that women aren’t just assets,” a female police officer from Kajiado sub-county explained to us.
It's important to also remember that FGM is an international problem, crossing borders and continents: in 2015-16, there were 5,700 newly recorded cases reported in England
. In the UK, it is a criminal offence
to perform FGM or assist a girl to carry out FGM at home or abroad, with the penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment or a fine. Yet, it still happens on a concerning scale globally and not enough is being done.
More funding is needed
The positive impact of our Kenyan and Ethiopian partners’ campaigns proves that tackling the local causes and educating people within the communities with high prevalence of FGM is an effective path to its disappearance. Namunyak, who has been trained by FIDA Kenya, won’t let her daughters be cut: “FGM doesn’t have any advantages, it was just a tradition and the things are changing now."
Despite these movements of change that are transforming attitudes, chronic underfunding of women’s rights organisations means that FGM is still happening, every day and on every continent. Women’s rights organisations and movements around the world are vital to protecting and promoting women’s rights, yet they are often left struggling for survival. Many are forced to close their doors or operate on next to nothing, jeopardising the fundamental work they do.
We must lobby governments
and decision makers to ensure that vital work by women’s rights organisations to end FGM, and other forms of violence is prioritised.