Today, 6th February, marks a day of Zero Tolerance to call for an end to the practice of female genital cutting – also called female genital mutilation (FGM). Let’s start with the statistics, which are shocking: over 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone female genital cutting. 140 million. But in an age where we’ve become almost de-sensitised to statistics, let’s stop for a moment to think about these women…
At the Family Planning Conference in Addis Ababa at the end of last year, I met Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist for Frontpage Africa, who is determined to act as “a voice for the voiceless”, reporting on issues such as child rape, police brutality and female genital cutting.
Mae is adamant about giving Liberian women access to information about family planning and maternal health care that she didn’t have as a young mother, when she almost bled to death because of the superstitious beliefs of a traditional birth attendant. But her work has brought her into conflict with Liberia’s traditional societies. Her determination to break the silence and speak out against female genital cutting brought death threats to her and her family – including her young daughter - and in March 2012 she was forced to flee the country and go into hiding after her report on the practice. She returned to Liberia three weeks later after pressure from global advocacy groups led government ministers and traditional leaders to come forward for the first time to denounce female genital cutting and commit to ending the practice.
In Liberia, two out of every three girls are cut. And in some countries the figure is even higher; in Egypt and Somalia, 90% of girls are cut. Female genital cutting involves the cutting and removal of all or part of a girlor woman’s external female genitalia. Its purpose? Mae explained: “By depriving women of the ability to feel sexual pleasure, you guarantee that they will remain faithful to their husbands”. She went on to describe the process in uncomfortably graphic detail. Children as young as one or two are “groomed for marriage” in this way; taken to the bush where “a bunch of women hold you down and another cuts off your clitoris while you scream”. There’s no anaesthetic, the practice is frequently carried out using a dirty blade and only herbs are applied to the wound afterwards. Often the practice results in serious infections, sometimes girls even bleed to death. As the mother of two young daughters myself, it’s shocking to me that, in the 21st century, this is the reality today for many young girls in Liberia.
There are clear risk factors between female genital cutting and HIV transmission, despite the lack of research to evidence this. During cutting “ceremonies” one blade is frequently used to cut all the girls. Even more significantly for HIV transmission, the girls are then stitched so tightly that first sex is traumatic, often forced, resulting in the loss of blood, in addition to the usual bodily fluids. HIV aside, female genital cutting also has other negative sexual and reproductive health implications, including infections resulting from the cutting, and trauma and complications during child birth.
And this practice isn’t just happening in Liberia. Despite laws committed to ending FGM and increasing international pressure, it continues to be practiced in as many as 29 countries across West, East and North East Africa, as well as parts of Asia and the Middle East. Migration to Europe means that an estimated 24,000 girls are at risk of female genital cutting here in the UK, with communities paying for cutters’ flights to come and perform it.
So, the question that remains… what can be done to accelerate efforts to end this practice? Integrating HIV and sexual and reproductive health, protecting and promoting human rights, challenging harmful gender norms and addressing gender-based violence – of which female genital cutting is one of the most egregious acts - is central to the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s programming across 40 countries. We need to support efforts to work directly with communities to speak out about a subject that is taboo, educate about the risks and challenge attitudes : working with fathers, village leaders, mothers, daughters, sons, grandmothers and those actually performing the practice. We need to ensure that the movement is owned and driven by stakeholders in affected countries, and that this work is supported by national laws prohibiting the practice. And we need to ensure, crucially, that these laws are effectively enforced by police and magistrates at the community level.
With all the rhetoric around the need to focus on “women and girls” and “gender transformative” approaches to address cultural and social norms that increase women and girls’ vulnerabilities, we urgently need to step up to the challenge. Lynne Featherstone, Under Secretary of State at the Department of International Development, is calling on the international community to break the silence on this issue, and to raise their voices against this harmful practice. Let’s end female genital cutting within a generation.