Suffer the Fair Sex: Female Genital Mutilation

Image by Wormcast via Wikimedia

Image by Wormcast via Wikimedia

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, is a community-based practise affecting millions of women worldwide. In essence, FGM is a human rights violation. According to the World Bank, more women are killed worldwide by domestic violence and rape than by war, cancer or malaria.

It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that 3 million girls a year in Africa are at risk of FGM/C and that 100-140 million women and girls have undergone the practice. It is mainly carried out in 28 African countries but also in the Middle East, some communities in other parts of Asia and within diaspora communities.

One such diaspora community is in the UK. However, the UK has taken a tough stance where it is now a crime to commit the practice. The current UK Coalition Government has made ending violence against women and girls a priority, whilst the NSPCC has recently launched a 24-hour helpline.  To many casual viewers or readers, articles, op-eds and radio spots have been noticeable within the UK media. Documentaries have been commissioned.  Many are becoming aware of the issue.

But Britain is not alone. Only this week has the remote Mediterranean country of Malta called for an anti-FGM bill.

The campaign against FGM is now a global one. There is now strong African leadership and real momentum for change in Africa. Increasing numbers of organisations, activists, communities, traditional and religious leaders, national policy-makers and other high-profile champions are working to end FGM. These efforts were given a new level of legitimacy with the passing of a UN General Assembly resolution in December 2012, calling for a global ban to the practice.

The resolution represents a significant moment in the battle against FGM. It has and should continue to be a catalyst for increased support and renewed efforts. The UK Department for International Development has to this regard sought to maximise the opportunity and has recently announced a £35 million investment aimed at ending FGM within a generation.

Finding a solution to FGM calls for a global movement that brings together major international organisations under one banner, with one voice. However FGM is not a simple issue. Although there are now surgical practices that look to reverse the damage, there is a worry from some FGM activists that the prevention message could be undermined if African communities believe FGM is something that can indeed be reversed.

It is important to stress that FGM is not a religious issue; it is a tribal and/or local community issue. A recent UK study found that to this end that community work is effective in changing attitudes to FGM and empowering affected communities to abandon the practice.

In the communities that practice it, the picture is complex. In many case, the practice is supported by both women and men; in others by female elders but not men. Either way, the issue cannot be approached by stigmatising and bashing the perpetrators. For instance it is often only those who have broken community rules who come forward. A campaign requires a more subtle social/behavioural change and educatory approach – an approach based on an understanding of social norms and how they change. To do this both men and women are equally important in the effort to the ending of the practice. For instance it has been found in some regions that men react to the notion that they might lose a child, whether female or male, as a result of FGM.

No gimmicky PR will work. No single NGO or group of NGOs are going to make significant, widespread impact.  This is about subtle and sophisticated behavioural change on a global scale, not merely awareness of the issue across multiple publics.  The political will seems to be there, the good intentions of many are being harnessed.  But strong leadership, sound campaign management and a global perspective will also be required.

Effects will not be seen overnight. Any solution will require sustained, supported, inclusive and cross-border campaigning.

Luke Havill, Albany Associates

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