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UNICEF joins in plan against FGM

Thursday, 20 March 1997: UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy today praised a new World Health Organization (WHO) programme against female genital mutilation, calling it "good news for all of Africa and a model for all nations of the world."

The Regional Plan to Accelerate Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), unveiled this week in Yaounde, the Cameroon, will be implemented in Western and Central Africa in cooperation with UNICEF and with the participation of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

FGM is a dangerous procedure often performed with an unsterilized knife or razor, nearly always without anaesthesia, to girls usually between the ages of four and 12. Part or all of the clitoris -- sometimes the inner lips of the vagina as well -- are excised. Haemorrhage and infection often follow. The consequences, some haunting a woman for the rest of her life, include pain, urinary tract infection, incontinence, inability to reach orgasm, infertility, psychological trauma and, sometimes, death.

The plan takes a three-prong approach: Educating the public and law-makers on the need to eliminate FGM; "de-medicalizing" FGM -- that is, tackling it as a violation of human rights as well as a danger to women's health; and working with the entire United Nations system to encourage every African country to develop a national, culturally-specific plan to eradicate FGM.

FGM is performed primarily in Africa, with Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudan accounting for 75 per cent of all cases. In Djibouti and Somalia, 98 per cent of girls are mutilated. In Sierra Leone, a powerful secret society recently cut the genitals of about 600 girls in a camp for displaced people.

"Mutilation is not required by any religion," Ms. Bellamy pointed out. "It is a tradition designed to preserve virginity, ensure marriageability and control sexuality -- and one that only serves to keep women "in their place." FGM is an explicit violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1989 international treaty that UNICEF is working to uphold.

Several African countries have begun to take steps to eliminate FGM, but there remains an enormous distance to go. Sudan's ministries of health and education are working with aid agencies on a school curriculum on harmful traditional practices. Ivory Coast has drafted a bill to ban FGM that is expected to be passed by the government soon. In Burkina Faso, a law has been adopted that makes FGM an offence punishable by a prison term of six months to 10 years and a fine of up to $1,800.

Ms. Bellamy noted that the release of the regional plan will serve as a prelude to an international campaign against FGM by United Nations agencies, to be announced in April.

FGM can also be found in Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States. In the US, from 27 March 1997, performing FGM will become a crime punishable by a fine, a prison term of up to five years, or both.

Ms. Bellamy believes that actions against FGM like those taken in Africa and around the world spell real change for girls and women everywhere. "We're finally seeing a ripple effect, where countries are beginning to recognize that it is within their power to make this violence stop."

Special events in the Cameroon this week kicked off the region's "Fight FGM Week" and included live testimonials by girls who have undergone FGM.

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1997/06.

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