Remarks by Gordon Jonathan Lewis, UNICEF The Gambia Representative at the VI International Forum on Gender Based Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s past time for silence. It’s past time for inaction. It’s past time for indifference. When the fundamental rights of girls and women are threatened, we must rise beyond every socio-cultural hurdle and assume our duty of care and protection. Female genital mutilation is a cruel violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls and epitomizes the pervasive gender inequalities that are rooted at the heart of society.
Today, more than 50 per cent of girls aged 0-14 have undergone FGM. That’s one in every two girls in The Gambia getting their rights violated and dignity shattered. The numbers aside, these are lives, hopes and futures of innocent girls with limitless dreams being torn apart before their eyes. These is an entire generation facing a blatant assault on their rights and dignity.
In our conversations, some people contend that FGM is a cultural practice, others even say, though without any firm evidence, that it’s a religious rite. But again, human rights are non-negotiable and the right of every girl and woman to protection is non-negotiable.
In our collective fight to end FGM, we are faced with a fundamental question: We know our communities are bound by empathy and care, ideals that have persisted through peace and crisis. So, how do we channel these values for greater protection for girls and women?
It is the quest for answers to these questions that brought together more than 100 people from over a dozen countries to Banjul in October 2022 for the Annual Technical Consultation, hosted by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. The Joint Programme has been the largest global programme on eliminating FGM since 2008 and we are proud of the immense strides we have been able to register together.
Today, we acknowledge the progress we have registered with you, our partners, in ending FGM. But the pace at which we are moving is too slow, especially for the girls being born to families that still practice FGM – the right of women and girls to health, protection, dignity and even life, cannot wait. And these are the rights that the blade takes away from women and girls. So, the next time you are faced with a choice to speak up and take action to protect a girl or woman from FGM, remember, the choice you make can make a difference in her life.
That choice could be standing up and speaking out against FGM. It could be reminding a hesitant law enforcement officer that it’s their sworn duty to enforce the law and protect girls and women, including from FGM. It could be reminding the justice system and the courts of the existence of a law that criminalizes FGM and of their duty to enforce the law. That choice could also be challenging your classmate who endorses the practice of FGM. Or putting in the facts under a social media post that erroneously attempts to justify FGM.
This year, the official theme for the International Day for Zero Tolerance of FGM is, “Partnership with Men and Boys to Transform Social and Gender Norms to End FGM”. Unlike other types of gender-based violence, which are mostly perpetrated by men, FGM is often (but not always) practiced by women. As a result, for a long time, the focus of our advocacy and engagement has been on women. But we know that to end FGM, men and boys, too, must be involved and willing to lead change. That is why, this year, we are calling on men and boys to join the fight and choose to be champions for the protection of girls and women.
Generations coming will be asking questions; our children and grandchildren will be asking questions, uncomfortable questions like, how did a society accept the cutting of girls and women and violation of their fundamental rights. We will be asked what action we took to end the attack on the rights and dignity of girls and women. Will you then have an answer?
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org/gambia.