Overview

Children in West and Central Africa

UNICEF in the region

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Child protection

 

Female genital mutilation and cutting

UNICEF/Gambia/2009/Vidyarthi
© UNICEF/wcaro09/Vidyarthi

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a traditional practice with severe health consequences for girls and women.

FGM/C comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. An interagency statement classifies FGM into four types.

In West and Central Africa, it is generally performed by traditional practitioners, but a “medicalization” of FGM/C, whereby girls are cut by trained personnel is on the rise in some countries. In Guinea, for example, younger generations are almost three times more likely to be cut by a trained health agent than women from the older generations. It is generally practiced on girls between the ages of 4 and 14, although in Mali and Mauritania, the majority of girls are cut before their fifth birthday.

Where is it practised?
FGM/C has been reported to occur in all parts of the world, but it is most prevalent among communities in 28 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East, where an estimated 3 million girls and women are cut each year.

The prevalence of FGM/C varies significantly from one country to another – from as low as 1 per cent in Cameroon to as much as 96 per cent in Guinea.

In most countries however, national average can disguise significant in-country variations explained by the presence of diverse ethnic communities with differing attitudes and practices regarding FGM/C.

Please watch the following video entitled " Towards the abandonment of FGM/C in Burkina Faso"

In West and Central Africa, the 18 countries where the practice is carried out and for which data is available can be separated in three groups as follows:
Mali, Guinea and Sierra Leone where the average prevalence rate is above 80% and nearly all women have undergone genital mutilation or cutting
Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania and Senegal where the FGM/C prevalence rates are at intermediate levels of 25 per cent to 79 per cent and where only certain ethnic groups within the country practise FGM/C, at varying intensity.
Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Togo where national prevalence rates are low, between 1 per cent and 24 per cent and where only some ethnic groups within the country practise FGM/C.

Why FGM/C persists?
Communities that practice female genital mutilation report a variety of social and religious reasons for continuing with it. This harmful practice is a deeply entrenched social convention, often associated with ethnic identity.

FGM/C derives from a complex set of belief systems. Communities are perpetuating custom and tradition. In many cases, family members know that the practice can bring harm, both physical and psychological, to their daughters, but they consider that they do what they must to raise a girl properly and to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.  Given the social dynamics, not conforming to the tradition would bring greater harm, since it would lead to stigmatisation and exclusion.

The practice is often upheld by traditional leaders and elders, as keepers of the tradition. Although FGM/C is not prescribed by any religion, this is not the general perception, especially regarding Islam. In Mauritania for instance, 33 per cent of rural women invoke religion as a reason to continue with FGM/C.

FGM/C is an important part of girls’ and women’s cultural gender ethnic and social identity and the procedure may also impart a sense of pride, of coming of age and a feeling of community membership.  In countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia for instance,  FGM/C is usually part of a traditional ceremony or rite of passage into adolescence. In Liberia, FGM/C is usually implemented through bush societies or the Sande society, which refer to bush schools for young girls. Girls are taken to the bush where they are taught local customs, sex education, feminine hygiene, and housekeeping skills. They also undergo FGM/C.

Beside the religious or ethnic background, other socio-economic variables such as educational level, place of residence and household wealth, can significantly enhance the understanding of the practice. [Read UNICEF's statistical exploration]

A violation of rights
Seen from a human rights perspective, FGM/C of any type is a harmful practice, a violation of human rights of girls and women (notably to the right to the highest attainable standard of health, to bodily integrity, to protection and in the most extreme cases, to the right to life) and a form of violence. It is an extreme manifestation of discrimination based on sex and gender inequality, deeply rooted in social, economic and political structures. [Learn more about the human rights framework]

FGM/C has harmful consequences
Besides immediate consequences, such as unspeakable pain, suffering and infections, FGM/C is associated with a series of health risks and long-term consequences.  They can include chronic pain, fatal haemorrhage or infections and psychological consequences.

Moreover, FGM/C is a contributory or causal factor in maternal and newborn death. According to a WHO multi-country study, women who had undergone genital mutilation face significantly increased risks of complications during delivery. It is estimated that an additional one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of female genital mutilation.

Evidence of change
FGM/C is an evolving practice and evidence shows that prevalence rates have declined in the last decade in some countries, such as in Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and Nigeria.

Younger generations are less likely to have been circumcised – The comparison of the experiences of women in different age groups shows a marked decrease in prevalence in almost all the countries of the region, except Gambia and Guinea-Bissau,

In some countries, evidence shows a generational trend towards ending the practice.  This trend is observed in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, in Sierra Leone.

Opposition to the practice is increasing – evidence shows that more than 50% of women in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria and Senegal support its discontinuation. However, in Mali, only 16 per cent of women support the abandonment of the practice.


 

 
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