Female genital cutting rates may be dropping, but girls are still at risk

by Julia Lalla-Maharajh | Orchid Project
Thursday, 8 November 2018 15:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A student awaits for the start of a social event advocating against harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For female genital cutting to end, we need effective approaches that create sustainable change where it matters; at the grassroots community level

Julia Lalla-Maharajh is the founder of the Orchid Project, which campaigns against female genital cutting.

Research released this week by the British Medical Journal has suggested there have been significant declines in female genital cutting (FGC) prevalence rates amongst girls aged 0-14 across East, North and West Africa. This news is encouraging but should be received with caution, and with an understanding of the context-specific nature of the practice around the world.

FGM rates drop for African girls but teens still at risk

It is significant that researchers are looking at data collected on girls aged 0-14, also known as “daughter data”, as research on prevalence rates most commonly looks at women between the ages of 15 and 49. Examinations of this older cohort are not primed to see significant change, since women who have been cut decades earlier will remain in the data set until the age of 49, whereas “daughter data” may show a more immediate change in whether families are continuing to practice FGC.

The trends identified by this study are promising. The global movement to end FGC - more commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM) - has never been stronger, and it is only gaining momentum but, as the researchers note, this study does not indicate that our work to end the practice is done.

While apparent significant declines in FGC prevalence suggest that efforts around the world are having an impact, the data does have limitations, and the context-specific nature of how FGC continues must be considered. 

Some girls included in this age 0-14 data may be yet to undergo FGC, particularly in some East African communities where the practice is a rite of passage carried out between 12 and 14 and sometimes up to the age of 16.

The BMJ researchers highlight that there may be issues around the accuracy of self-reporting too, with mothers potentially not reporting that their daughters have been cut for fear of prosecution in countries where national laws against FGC exist.

Further limitations could also include where the survey data is collected, as it may not account for areas where FGC prevalence is particularly high. For example in Kenya, the national prevalence according to UNICEF is 21percent, however within some ethnic groups such as Kisii, Kuria and Maasai, prevalence rates are known to be between 93 percent and 96 percent.

The data examined in this research also doesn’t account for girls living in countries that do not report national data on FGC. We know of 15 countries where FGC has occurred outside the 30 that report national data. Without representation of the true scale of the practice and efforts to end it, we cannot yet celebrate success. We can, however, take hope from trends that point to the need for increased support for efforts to end FGC.

Girls are one-third less likely to be cut than they were 30 years ago, according to UNICEF and UNFPA. There is urgency, however, coming from the fact that the geography of population growth means 1 in 3 girls worldwide will be born in the 30 countries where FGC is concentrated by 2030.

More needs to be done, and quickly, but change is happening.

In many of the countries included in the research there is evidence of significant change at the grassroots. To give just two examples, over 8,400 communities in West Africa have publicly declared they’re abandoning FGC through the work of Tostan, and Maasai communities in south Kenya have developed alternative rites of passage to which 30 percent of the Loita Hills community have transitioned through the work of S.A.F.E. Kenya. 

A tremendous, growing movement has achieved so much in recent years, and seeing that reflected in research supports our conviction that FGC can end within a generation.

For FGC to end globally, we need commitment, leadership and policy from global leaders, research that shows the true scale of the issue around the world, and support and resources for effective approaches that create sustainable change where it matters; at the grassroots community level.