Statement on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
By UNICEF Kenya Representative, Werner Schultink
The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), rooted in tradition and culture, affects millions of girls and women every year. Since 2003 when the United Nations first observed 6th February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, there has been increased global attention on the practice, and awareness increased of the often severe, and multiple adverse effects this practice has on girls and women.
This year, the global theme is “Building a solid and interactive bridge between Africa and the world to accelerate ending FGM by 2030.” In Kenya, under the leadership of the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, the chosen national theme for 2017 was: “Working together to End FGM in Kenya by 2030”, or in Swahili: “Jukumu langu kukomesha Ukeketaji ifikapo mwaka wa elfu mbili na thelathini.”
Ending FGM is a matter of urgency. We should all be concerned. Consider this, a report released by UNICEF in 2016, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern,” revealed that in 2016 at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries alive today have undergone some form of FGM. Furthermore, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM every year.
The report suggested that the current progress towards ending FGM was insufficient to keep up with the increasing population growth, and that if trends continue, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM will rise significantly over the next 15 years (by 2030).
Closer to home, in Kenya, 37 out of 42 communities practise FGM and it affects thousands of girls annually. FGM has far-reaching implications for the emotional and psychological well-being, education and health of the girls and women who have undergone the practice.
FGM often results in complications in child birth, difficulties in menstruation, infections, urine retention and haemorrhaging. It changes their entire lives forever, affecting the quality of their adult lives and the lives of their children.
Indeed, FGM is a denial of girls’ rights to life and health -- their right to determine their own course of life and to be consulted on key decisions that affect them. Many of these communities believe that FGM prepares a girl for child marriage, doubly burdening the girl: giving birth before their bodies and minds are ready.
I cannot forget those passionate and outspoken young adolescent girls and boys whom I recently met in Habaswein, Wajir County. One girl in particular stood out. It was a large audience but she was not intimidated, she addressed the people – old and young – women and men – with confidence and such intensity.
This courageous girl explained why FGM should stop, how it destroys lives, and how she herself had undergone the practice as a child. She spoke about her sense of betrayal when she finally understood the irreversible physical damage that had been done to her, and many other girls like her. This girl now helps to prevent other girls from undergoing FGM by speaking to parents, teachers, community leaders and peers.
In the last two decades, Kenya has made great progress in eliminating FGM as shown by the successive Kenya Demographic and Health Surveys. The overall prevalence reduced to 21 per cent in 2014, from 38 per cent in 1998.
Despite this gradual national decline, FGM prevalence among six communities ranges from 31 to as high as 94 per cent. The Government position is clear: the Prohibition of the FGM Act of 2011 established the Anti-FGM Board as a semi-autonomous Government Agency under the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs. This Board has provided much needed coordination and advisory oversight in the implementation of FGM programmes.
However, there are emerging challenges. For instance, girls are undergoing FGM at even younger ages -- at times as young as five years old, often in secrecy. The practice of FGM is most often arranged and supported by respected family members and community elders; men and women as well as parents/caregivers. In 80.5 per cent of FGM cases, it is being performed by ‘traditional women circumcisers’ who are easily accessible within the FGM-practising communities.
A disturbing development is the increasing involvement of medical professionals who are misleading parents that their practices would be ‘safer’ when evidently no medical school would train any professional in performing FGM.
Innovative and community sensitive strategies are critically required to accelerate abandonment of FGM. If we are to achieve the national goals of ending FGM by 2030, a number of other issues need to be addressed. These include improving the availability of data and evidence in order to make national programmes more effective and efficient; enhancing communication to change behaviour which can lead to the desired results; institution strengthening and national coordination; building consensus within and among communities and working in collaboration with religious leaders to abandon FGM.
Jointly we can use legal norms to help shift social norms. Laws and policies are not only instruments for punishing offenders, they can also be tools for advocacy and raising awareness.
UNICEF and UNFPA, other UN agencies and development partners, civil society, religious leaders, parents as well as children and young people, are committed to work under the leadership of the Government to accelerate abandonment of FGM.
Keeping girls in school empowers them and will strengthen advocacy against FGM and will also enable them to have more opportunities for meaningful employment and to eventually make a contribution to their communities and society at large. We must listen to the voices of girls and young women as they are the ones directly affected. By empowering them with information and confidence, girls, and also boys, are making a difference in our campaign to end FGM.
Together we can end FGM in Kenya by 2030.