It is not often that the word “clitoris” is uttered in public forums of the United Nations. Yet participants in the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation at UN headquarters recently heard that word repeatedly, along with poignant stories of survivors of the painful, bloody and sometimes-fatal procedure at an event marking the day.
The event promoted a new Unicef statistical report, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern,” which revealed startling details about the prevalence of the procedure worldwide, even as laws are being passed to outlaw the practice in many countries and many, many campaigns are pushing for the end of the practice through a wide range of approaches. The World Health Organization describes female genital mutilation as any procedure involving partial or total removal of the external genitalia or other injury to genital organs for nonmedical reasons.
At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female cutting, as it is also known, according to data collected in 30 countries, or about 16 percent of all UN member states. Some of the people who have endured the procedure told the audience at the UN how it still affects them decades after being cut.
The report noted that half of the girls and women who experienced cutting live in three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. The global figure in the report includes nearly 70 million more girls and women than estimated in 2014, because of population growth in some countries and the collection of nationally representative data by Indonesia’s government. In 2013, Indonesia’s Ministry of Health included questions on the prevalence of female genital mutilation among the youngest girls in one of its household surveys, thus producing national data on the issue for the first time. Generally, the procedure in Indonesia is limited to a nick of the genitalia.
Officials estimate that if current population growth trends continue, the numbers of those subjected to cutting globally will rise significantly over the next 15 years. Yet some countries have shown significantly declining numbers in the last 30 years, notably in Africa, among girls 15 to 19 years old, proving that advocacy can work: in Liberia, the rate has dropped 41 percent; Burkina Faso, 31; Kenya, 30; and Egypt, 27.
Unicef and the United Nations Population Fund co-lead a global program to eliminate FGM (with its own hashtag, #EndFGM); the new Sustainable Development Goals passed in September 2015 also include ending FGM by 2030.
Since 2008, more than 15,000 communities and subdistricts in 20 countries have publicly declared that they are abandoning female genital mutilation, including more than 2,000 communities last year. Data indicates that most people in countries where FGM exists think the practice should end, including nearly two-thirds of boys and men. In West Africa, for example, where rates have stayed stubbornly high, more boys and men oppose female cutting than girls and women do in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“All of you are changing mind-sets,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the audience at the UN program on Feb. 8, adding that since 2007, more than a dozen countries have enacted measures to tackle FGM, and more than 950 legal cases have been prosecuted. Today, nearly all countries where it is prevalent outlaw the practice. “We are working to extend that legal protection everywhere,” Ban said.
“I am especially inspired by communities that have found better ways to mark the rite of passage into womanhood,” he said, like those in Kenya and Tanzania, where girls spend a week away from their families learning life skills.
“Let us shift the focus away from mutilation to education,” he said. “Let us make a world where FGM stands for Focus on Girls’ Minds” — or quoting another nonprofit group — “Finally Girls Matter.”
A French singer, Inna Modja, who is originally from Mali and was cut as a 4-year-old, tearfully shared the effect the procedure had on her life. “I lost my identity when I went through FGM. I didn’t know who I was.”
“Cutting me was telling me that I’m not good enough,” she added, noting that losing her clitoris was akin to losing one of her major senses. Modja has since undergone reconstructive surgery and discovered the power of music, “which helped me to heal.”
Cornelius Williams, the associate director of child protection at Unicef, emphasized the importance of working to change opinions in communities “to get more and more people on board.”
“We can have other rites of initiation for girls,” he said, encouraged by data that shows that as families become more educated and move to urban areas, the numbers of families that cut their daughters drop.
“We have to continue to change how girls are valued and treated in their communities,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s executive director. “We have to continue to reduce the pressure they experience from their families, their communities, and their peers.”
Representing Indonesia was Dr. Yohana Yembise, its minister of women’s empowerment and protection. She noted the efforts of the country to fully abandon the practice while being sensitive to the customs of religious authorities. For cutting to be eliminated, she added, cooperation is needed among government, civil society and international bodies.
Despite the somber nature of the topic, the tone at the event was strikingly upbeat. Serving as master of ceremonies was a British TV journalist, Femi Oke. “We need to work on this mood,” she said, before introducing Ban Ki-Moon, encouraging audience applause.
For the UN, such fanfare focusing on ending female genital mutilation signals a more visible, united role to highlight progress but to also emphasize glaring impediments in stopping the practice worldwide.
One attendee at the gathering narrowly escaped undergoing cutting herself. Dr. Nina Smart, a Los Angeles sociologist who was born in Romania with an African father, had moved to Nigeria to attend school when she was younger. She developed a passion for women’s rights there but had no knowledge that the practice of FGM was occurring in African society.
Her father, who was a member of Parliament in Sierra Leone, had arranged for her “initiation” into the secret society of women who had undergone it in Sierra Leone, before she caught on and left the country — three weeks before a civil war broke out — eventually arriving in the United States.
In 2004, Dr. Smart founded Servicing Wild Flowers-SWF International, based in Los Angeles, to raise awareness about FGM through lectures and presentations for students and socially conscious groups. She works in rural Sierra Leone with the organization’s partners, who hold community meetings that include Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Her organization also supports projects that protect children and women and assist families, including the creation of a safe house for people to escape to avoid being cut.
She found it more useful, she said, to conduct her advocacy from abroad, because her physical presence in Sierra Leone “always disrupts” — agitates people. As an activist, she said in a follow-up email that she was glad to see that the UN’s position is “zero tolerance,” including debates around the “age of consent,” which has been at times proposed by international nongovernment organizations working in the affected areas in deference to local customs.
“I believe that the UN must empower organizations that work at the local level and fund programs that show encouraging reports indicating progress with efforts to end FGM,” she wrote.
She also called it “imperative” to address the economic aspect of the practice and concentrate on “creating lucrative alternatives for the women who perform FGM,” like programs that engage practitioners in learning new income-making skills.
As for the UN event itself, while she found it moving in how it portrayed girls’ experiences, “I was expecting that more participation from experienced activists and NGO members would have been encouraged to share not only information about challenges but hear some of the amazing success stories that keep us focused on the work ahead to end FGM.”
She added that “allowing audience participation in addition to experts’ opinions could have improved the quality of the discussion and shed more light on this sensitive topic.”
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.