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New UNICEF report on female genital mutilation/cutting: Turning opposition into action

By Priyanka Pruthi

A groundbreaking new report by UNICEF finds that, while much progress has been made in abandoning female genital mutilation/cutting, millions of girls are still at risk – and sets out key steps needed to eliminate the practice for once, and for all.

NEW YORK, United States of America, 22 July 2013M – "I don't want any part of my body to be cut. I don't want to be circumcised," says 10-year old Kheiriya Abidi from Boorama town, North-West Somalia.

Kheiriya is terrified of the blood, the pain and physical torture she will have to suffer if her genitals are cut.

The pressure on her to be cut is mounting every day, and she is often ridiculed and insulted by her friends for being 'different'. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is rooted deep in Somali culture; the practice is nearly universal. Girls and women are made to have their external genitalia removed fully or partially– some when they are just infants, others when they hit puberty – in the name of preserving female honour, chastity, beauty, ensuring their marriageability.

But Kheiriya refuses to be one of them. She is standing strong in the face of criticism with support from her family and community health workers who are part of a larger movement to eliminate FGM/C.

Increasing opposition

A groundbreaking new report by UNICEF shows that more girls like Kheiriya, as well as women and men, are saying no to FGM/C than ever before, and more communities than ever are abandoning the centuries-old tradition.

In Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, UNICEF compiles and analyses data from 74 nationally representative surveys that were conducted over a 20-year period in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East in which FGM/C is practised.

"This report is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics and data analysis on FGM/C to date," says UNICEF Statistics and Monitoring Specialist Claudia Cappa. "It's extremely important because it illustrates, for the first time, what we know about how widespread is the practice is, the attitudes surrounding the practice and the reasons why this practice is continued. It's also the first report that includes data for countries like Iraq for which we didn't have national figures."

The findings of the report point to a sharp decline in FGM/C in numerous countries in which it is practised. Prevalence has dropped by as much as almost half among adolescent girls in Benin, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria. "In most of the countries surveyed, majority of girls and women who have undergone the practice do not see benefits to it and think that the practice should stop," says Ms. Cappa. "More mothers are aware that FGM/C can lead to their daughter's, or a girl's, death. So, there is a better understanding of the consequences, which, in itself, is very important progress."

"We don't talk"

Perhaps one of the most striking revelations is the degree of discrepancy between the low support for FGM/C and the high prevalence of its practice. Even in countries in which most girls and women are cut, a significant proportion of the population opposes the practice.

"It confirms that there is a social obligation, that the practice is relational," explains UNICEF Senior Child Protection Specialist Francesca Moneti. "I do what I do because I know that you expect me to do it, and vice versa. The clear programmatic insight from the report is you have to make visible the fact that people in their private sphere don't support the practice. So, I may not support cutting, and you may not support it, but I see you cutting your girl, and you see me cutting my girl, and you think I support it because you see me cutting my girl – but we don't talk."

The report sets out some key steps needed to eliminate FGM/C – one of which is finding ways to make attitudes that favour abandonment of the practice visible, so families know they are not alone. Ms. Moneti emphasizes that increasing visibility would generate a chain reaction against FGM/C that would lead to a relatively quick end of the practice.

"By that, I mean decades before it will completely disappear in a population group… but that's not a very long time in development terms, especially if you think that the practice has been around for over 1,000 years," she says.

Speaking out loudly and clearly

More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM/C in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East in which it is concentrated, and 30 million girls are at risk of being cut within the next decade.

"FGM/C is a violation of a girl's rights to health, well-being and self-determination," says UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta. "What is clear from this report is that legislation alone is not enough. The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned."





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