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Agencies call for end to female genital mutilation

Wednesday, 9 April 1997: The heads of three UN agencies -- the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF -- met today at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to appeal to the international community and world leaders to support efforts aimed at eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM).

Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima of WHO, Dr. Nafis Sadik of UNFPA and Ms. Carol Bellamy of UNICEF unveiled their joint plan to bring about a major decline in female genital mutilation in 10 years and completely eliminate this practice within three generations.

The elimination of this unsafe and unjustifiable traditional practice based on misconceptions and myths, they said, will improve considerably the health status of millions of women and children in the developing world, particularly in African countries. It will also become a major contribution to the promotion of human rights and gender equity.

The three agencies will emphasize a multi-disciplinary approach and teamwork both within the countries where female genital mutilation is practised as well as at the regional and global levels. This teamwork will bring together governments, political and religious institutions, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and funding agencies in their efforts to eliminate the harmful practice. The basis for this cooperation at country level will be national "inter-agency teams" supported by international organizations.

According to the inter-agency agreement, the teams will assist governments in developing and implementing clear national policies for the "abolition of female genital mutilation, including, where appropriate, the enactment of legislation to prohibit it."

The interagency teams' efforts will be directed at changing public opinion in the countries concerned through education and awareness-raising about the harmful physical and psychological effects of female genital mutilation. Their target audiences will include the general public, medical professionals, decision-makers, governments, political, religious and village leaders, as well as traditional healers and birth attendants.

"The arguments against female genital mutilation are based on universally recognized human rights, including the right to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health," stated Dr. Nakajima. "This practice is an infringement upon the physical and psycho-sexual integrity of women and girls and is a form of violence against them. Therefore, female genital mutilation is unacceptable from any point of view and in any form."

"At the same time, we have to realize that female genital mutilation is a deeply-rooted traditional practice. As such, it can only be abolished completely when attitudes have been changed," said the WHO Director-General.

"Our joint plan provides the crucial momentum to once and for all eliminate FGM, a dangerous and potentially life-threatening procedure that affects millions of girls each year," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "Progress has been made recently with ground-breaking legislation to stop this practice in countries such as the Cameroon, Egypt and Burkina Faso. We must keep the pressure up everywhere to ensure that every girl's right to a safe and healthy life is fully protected."

"The physical and psychological effects of FGM affect health and well-being -- in particular, sexual and reproductive health -- throughout the lives of those who undergo it," stated Dr. Nafis Sadik, UNFPA Executive Director. "The elimination of FGM will require a better understanding of its social and cultural origins, and taking just such an approach in the Kapchoma District of Uganda, a recent UNFPA pilot project has demonstrated a remarkable decline in the practice."

Sometimes referred to as female circumcision or excision, the term female genital mutilation is used to describe all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.

In cultures where it is the accepted norm, female genital mutilation is normally performed by traditional practitioners with crude instruments, such as knives, razor blades and broken glass, usually without anaesthetics. Among the more affluent sectors of society it may be performed in a health care facility by qualified health personnel.

The age at which FGM is performed varies from region to region: it is performed on infants a few days old, female children and adolescents, and even occasionally on mature women. In general, most girls are mutilated between the ages of 4 and 12.

FGM often leads to complications. Short term complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death. Long-term complications include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, urinary tract infection, infertility and childbirth complications.

Today, the number of girls and women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation is estimated at over 130 million individuals worldwide, with a further 2 million girls annually at risk. Most of these girls and women live in 28 African countries, although some live in Asia and the Middle East. They are also found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA among immigrants from these countries.

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Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1997/10.

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