(Updates number of countries to sign charter, adds pledge from Ethiopia and further UK announcements)
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – British Prime Minister David Cameron announced legal reforms on Tuesday to tackle the “preventable evil” of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, and urged nations attending a one-day summit to commit to ending both practices in a generation.
Worldwide, more than 130 million girls and women have undergone FGM and more than 700 million women alive today were children when they were married, more than a third of them under 15.
“It’s absolutely clear what we are trying to achieve. It’s such a simple, but noble and good ambition, and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation and childhood and early forced marriage; to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone within this generation,” Cameron said.
He urged countries to sign up to an international charter launched at GirlSummit which calls for the eradication of these practices, and said 30 governments had already done so.
Cameron said new legislation to be enacted in Britain meant parents could be prosecuted if they failed to prevent their daughter being cut, and would give victims of FGM lifelong anonymity.
The prime minister, who noted his 10-year-old daughter was not much younger than many girls who get pushed into forced marriage, said it would also become mandatory for frontline professionals like teachers and doctors to report FGM and forced marriage to the authorities.
The government earlier announced it would launch a £1.4 million FGM prevention programme to help care for survivors and protect those at risk.
Ministers and officials from Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Zambia and others also pledged to step up efforts to tackle both issues. Ethiopia, one of the countries with the highest rates of FGM, announced it would eradicate cutting and child marriage by 2025.
But UNICEF warned that booming population growth - particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa - meant the number of FGM victims would soar and there would be no decline in the number of child brides unless global action was dramatically accelerated.
Cameron said ending FGM and child marriage was a major global development challenge on a par with eradicating poverty and tackling diseases.
“But above all … I would argue we are dealing with a preventable evil. This does not need to happen,” he told the summit attended by more than 500 delegates from 50 countries.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and girl’s rights campaigner who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, said getting girls into school was the best way to fight child marriage and FGM.
She told the summit it was wrong to think that Islam was against women’s education and empowerment and urged those who thought so to go back to the Koran.
Cameron paid particular tribute to the “huge bravery” of survivors of FGM and child marriage who have spoken out.
Alimatu Dimonekene, who was cut at 16 before she left Sierra Leone to study in Britain, said she still had flashbacks and had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Girls in some countries are told they will die if they speak about FGM.
“I was cut, but my daughters will never be cut,” she told the summit. “I was told you could not speak about this. Here I am talking about it.”
Estimates released on Monday night suggest 137,000 women in England and Wales have undergone FGM and 60,000 girls are at risk of being cut.
Speakers at the summit underlined the importance of getting religious leaders to join the fight against FGM, which is often mistakenly seen as a religious obligation.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that almost 300 UK faith leaders from all major faiths had signed a declaration condemning FGM and making clear it was not required by their religions and was a form of child abuse.
Clegg said officials were working with faith and community leaders on a similar declaration on forced marriage.
Other UK announcements included:
- £25 million in new funding to tackle forced marriage in Africa, Asia and the Middle East
- New guidelines for police and schools in the UK on forced marriage and FGM
- Training on FGM for midwives, doctors, social workers, police and prosecutors
- A new network of “community champions” with relevant cultural knowledge to change behaviour
- A new cross-government specialised FGM unit working with police prosecutors, health, social and education services