To the symposium on female genital mutilation in Berlin
Berlin - 8 March 2003
Your Excellency, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kerstin Müller, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I cannot imagine a better way to observe International Women's Day than to be here for this important gathering, among so many friends of UNICEF and so many dedicated proponents of the advancement of women.
Although the international women's movement began at the grassroots level many years before the founding of the United Nations, the UN - helped along by pioneers like Eleanor Roosevelt - moved swiftly to affirm that the cause of women's rights was central to its work.
Nearly 60 years after the UN Charter became the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right, the United Nations has helped create an historic legacy of internationally agreed strategies, programmes and goals to advance the status of women everywhere.
The UN Commission on the Status of Women and other UN bodies first began to focus on female genital mutilation in the early 1950s as part of an attempt to confront the problem of customs, ancient laws and rituals that harm women's health and well-being and trample on their rights.
There was a consensus that FGM/C and other traditions were completely inconsistent with universal human rights principles. Yet so great were the cultural and political obstacles that here we are, in the 21st Century, still seeking to find a way to end one of the most persistent, pervasive and silently endured affronts to the human rights of women.
In fact, we have barely made a dent in the global practice of FGM/C. The current prevalence is roughly the same as it was nearly a decade ago. In some high-prevalence countries, it has worsened: up a third of a percent in Egypt, to 97.3 per cent; up almost 1 percent in Sudan, to 90 per cent; up almost two per cent in Côte d'Ivoire, to 44.5 per cent.
The UN General Assembly, recalling a recommendation by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, has declared that FGM/C constitutes a potentially life-threatening danger to the health of women and girls.
The number of women and girls affected is enormous - more than 100 million have endured genital cutting - and it is still performed on some 2 million girls a year. This, despite the extraordinary efforts of many UN Funds and Programmes, Resolutions of the General Assembly, laws approved by enlightened Governments, initiatives by non-governmental organisations, and the mobilisation of civil society groups and individuals from all walks of life.
As the General Assembly has pointed out, the elimination of FGM/C will require a far greater effort by Governments, the international community and civil society precisely because fundamental changes in societal attitudes are required.
At a conference on zero tolerance of FGM/C, held in Addis Ababa in February 2002, one speaker defined FGM/C as "the scourge of Africa."
Nonetheless, changes are taking place. In Eritrea, over half the population opposes the practice - with slightly more than half the men and slightly less than half the women registering disapproval. In two regions in Chad, girls born in the 80s were only half as likely to undergo FGM as girls born in the 60s.
We have to look to - and strengthen - innovative approaches that have been developed, such as the involvement of religious leaders in Sudan and Egypt, the involvement of young people in Benin and Eritrea, the involvement of communities in Senegal, whose experience we will listen to today - and the adoption and enforcement of laws in several countries, including Burkina Faso.
For the UN's part, the Secretary-General has reaffirmed that FGM/C undermines the realisation of universal human rights. And at least two of the Millennium Development Goals will be seriously hampered by the persistence of FGM/C: the achievement of gender equality and the improvement of maternal health.
There is more and more recognition that eliminating this and other harmful practices will help reduce the vulnerability of women and girls to human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and other sexually transmitted infections.
The outcome document of the UN General Assembly's Special Session on Children, endorsed by 69 heads of States and Government and 190 high-level national delegations including young people, set a goal to end female genital mutilation by the year 2010. Ending FGM/C by 2010 should be our common objective.
In order to reach it, UNICEF has defined a protective environment that emphasises the following:
1. Working with families and communities in order to change attitudes, traditions, custom and practices that promote gender inequality and discrimination and lead to FGM/C. NGOs should continue to play a strong role in this effort.
2. Building capacity of all development workers including health and
social workers, school teachers, police officers, in order to identify and respond to child protection problems such as FGM/C.
3. Engaging civil society, media, parliamentarians, religious and opinion leaders in open discussions and debates on ending FGM/C.
4. Involving children, adolescents and young people in open debate about ending FGM/C and listening to their voices. Adolescents, especially girls, should be empowered with information, knowledge and life skill to protect themselves and their younger sisters from FGM/C
5. Getting full Governments' commitment to ending FGM/C: Governments interest in, recognition of, commitment to and capacity for leading actions are essential elements for ending FGM/C. Governments are also accountable for implementing the concluding observations and recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (CEDAW) .
6. Promoting an adequate national legislative framework and its consistent implementation.
7. Improving Services for Recovery, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of girls and women who suffer from FGM/C and its lifelong consequences
8. Monitoring and reporting on FGM/C requires an effective monitoring system as part of the national social statistics mechanism that records the prevalence, incidence and nature of FGM/C abuses and allows for informed and strategic responses.
Here are the steps UNICEF believes are essential:
Ending FGM/C should be included in national policies and strategies as an integral part of economic and social development programmes, including poverty reduction strategies, legislation, and national action plans relating to children. This includes key sectors such as education, health and social welfare.
Countries should also develop comprehensive and culturally appropriate national strategies to address community attitudes. FGM/C is a deeply rooted tradition: in many societies it is believed to be a religious obligation. This can only be addressed, over time, through the involvement of influential religious leaders, and persons with authority. Others need to be involved, too: adolescents, both male and female; those who make their living as practitioners, parliamentarians and the media
Any strategy must ensure that girls and women who need it can receive care for recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration as consequences of complications from FGM/C surgical procedures, obstetrical complications, fistula and psychological sequels.
At both national and international levels, there needs to be greater sharing of information, and agreement on benchmarks in place to measure our progress between now and 2010 to ensure accountability.
We need to mobilise high level political commitment, grassroots support, and greater resources to meet this time-bound goal. Therefore we welcome civil society initiatives like the Appeal to Stop FGM, which was launched in Brussels in December 2002.
Now we need to put our resources behind the promise. We will be part of fulfilling that promise, to helping free the 16 million girls who will otherwise be cut between now and the end of 2010. To do this we will need as many partners, and as much political and material support, as we can find. We are counting on all of you.