Across Africa, according to the World Health Organization an estimated 92 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure that involves removing all or part of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM, a traditional practice rooted in custom and beliefs about female “purity” may include:
- Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
- Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
FGM is performed on girls ranging from infancy to age 15. FGM is a human rights abuse. It has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. There are both immediate and long-term implications for women and girls who have undergone the procedure.
FGM has persisted in many countries because of deeply held beliefs about controlling female sexuality, female “purity,” and marriageability of women.
But now, as Celia Dugger reports in the New York Times, efforts to end FGM seem to have reached a tipping point, at least in the country of Senegal where more than 5,000 Senegalese villages have joined a growing movement to end the practice.
It’s a cultural and generational change that has built on persistent investments in educating village leaders and families about the harms caused by FGM. Dugger writes:
The change is happening without the billions of dollars that have poured into other global health priorities throughout the developing world in recent years. Even after campaigning against genital cutting for years, the United Nations has raised less than half the $44 million it set as the goal.
In Senegal, writes Dugger, “Tostan, a group whose name means “breakthrough” in Wolof, Senegal’s dominant language, has had a major impact with an education program that seeks to build consensus, African-style, on the dangers of the practice, while being careful not to denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do. Senegal’s Parliament officially banned the practice over a decade ago, and the government has been very supportive of Tostan’s efforts.”
“Before you would never even dare to discuss this,” said Mamadou Dia, governor of the Kolda region where this village is located. “It was taboo. Now you have thousands of people coming to abandon it.”
Over the past 15 years, the drive to end the practice has gained such momentum, writes Dugger, “that a majority of Senegalese villages where genital cutting was commonplace have committed to stop it.”
Now, “[w]ith too few resources to replicate Tostan’s health and human rights classes across Africa, Nafissatou Diop, who coordinates the United Nations-led campaign to end the practice, is looking for quicker, cheaper strategies to change social conventions on cutting. Tostan has pursued an ambitious effort here with support from Unicef and others, but its two- to three-year program costs about $21,000 per village — a substantial sum considering the countless villages that continue the practice.”
“The program is transformative, and I love that as an African woman,” said Ms. Diop, who is Senegalese, “but we need to move faster.”
What if, with the incredibly small sums of money needed by the United Nations campaign to fund these strategies across a continent, we could end FGM within the next ten to 15 years? Both UNICEF and UNFPA work to end FGM, though the GOP-led House of Representatives is seeking to eliminate funding for both.