Population Matters

Let’s Talk About FGM

February 17th, 2010

On February 6th the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation occurred with very little fanfare, perhaps because most people have never heard of the problem.  But female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) affects the lives of 3 million girls annually in Africa alone. According to the World Health Organization there is no health benefit to FGM/C and it is harmful to girls and women in various ways both immediate: severe pain, shock, bleeding, tetanus; and long term: cysts, recurring bladder infections, infertility, increased risk of complications in childbirth, need for later surgeries. They define FGM/C as any procedure that intentionally alters or injures female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM/C is mostly performed on girls between infancy and age 15 and is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

FGM/C is one manifestation of the inequality of the status of girls and women around the world. This feeds into the complications of talking about FGM/C on an international stage.  Not only does it involve girls and women making it less likely the issue will be addressed, but it also carries the sexuality taboo and the concern that FGM/C is a cultural practice and outsiders should not impose their cultural values on another culture. All of these issues have made it difficult to form an international movement to address the issue.  Still, world leaders have condemned the practice in international treaties and consensus documents such as: Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (which the U.S. is one of only seven countries not to ratify), the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.

While some progress around this issue has been made, the U.N. goal of eliminating it by 2015 seems impossible given how widespread the practice is. However, last month it was encouraging to see FGM/C talked about in a panel discussion sponsored by YouTube at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. YouTube ran a competition called Davos Debates that asked viewers to vote on various cause-oriented videos to determine which human rights cause should be discussed at Davos this year, and a video on the issue of FGM/C won. You can see a full length video about the issue and the panel discussion here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtMCk5b9fAE.

The U.N. goal of eliminating FGM/C by 2015 may seem out of reach, but if the world comes together and decides that these girls matter, anything is possible. One of the first steps that the U.S. needs to take is to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was previously addressed on this blog: Time for the U.S. to Ratify CEDAW. It is important that people talk about female genital mutilation and cutting and see it not just as a women’s issue, but as a human rights issue because women’s rights are human rights.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

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