In 2020, 4.1 million girls (UN, 2020) around the world are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is any procedure that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and can cause short-term and long-term physical and mental health implications.
FGM is widely considered a violation of human rights and is illegal in many countries. Despite this, it still occurs in 30 countries, predominantly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia (WHO 2020). Increased migration has also contributed to girls who live outside their country of origin, in Europe, the US and Australia, who are still at risk of being subjected to the practice (UN 2020).
In 2019 (UNFPA 2019), 25 African countries had laws banning FGM and some of the countries with the highest prevalence of FGM (see map below), for example Mali and Sierra Leone, are amongst those who still do not have legislation around FGM (Equality Now 2019). While this suggests that laws banning the practice are an important step towards eradicating FGM, in 2018 (Reuters 2018) half of the girls who had undergone FGM or who were at risk lived in Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, all of which had laws against FGM. They are not the only countries where laws are not enough to stop FGM; even the UK has had recent incidences of the practice.
Part of the reason for this is the lack of enforcement or understanding of the laws, but also the practice has become embedded and justified by cultural and social norms and pressures of communities in which it is practiced. Even when higher numbers of the population believe the practice is wrong (as in Ethiopia, referenced by Zahra in UNFPA’s A Piece of Me Campaign) it can persist as a result of these norms and pressures.
In most communities it is inherently linked to female sexuality and ideals of virginity, purity and modesty, as it is believed to reduce libido, remove the unclean parts of a woman’s body, or make them more marriageable. A religious justification is often used, though no religious scripts support the practice (WHO 2020).
In many communities the practice is upheld by those in a position of authority, such as local leaders, elders, religious leaders and medical practitioners. Women themselves are implicated and embedded in the practice; many village ‘cutters’ are women and it is a hereditary position, meaning that the social pressures for women in these communities exist not only around the act of FGM but around the practice itself (UNFPA 2019).
It is for these reasons that it is becoming increasingly apparent that in order to eradicate FGM, social and cultural norms must be changed so that entire communities abandon the practice. In order to do this in a successful way, the local culture must be respected, and their values built upon, rather than dismissed or disrespected, especially from those coming from the outside.
UNFPA’s A Piece of Me Campaign gives examples of survivors of FGM who are working in their communities to raise awareness of the negative consequences of FGM and spark the discussions which change opinions and eventually social norms.
The first chapter of Sue Lloyd-Roberts The War on Women explores the lives of women who are fighting and resisting FGM in their communities, including the story of Maimouna, a Gambian woman who is expected to be the village cutter and who fled her community and country to resist her duty. At the time the book was written, Maimouna was appealing the British government’s decision to deny her asylum, due to her fear that if she returned to her country she would be forced to cut or face death. Though no official had visited Maimouna’s community, they rejected her claim on the ‘belief that it would be safe for her to return.’
As outsiders to these communities, our best method to assist in the fight against FGM is to work with and support women and other community members who are resisting or dismantling FGM. We should not assume to understand other cultures or norms without speaking to those who experience them.
The same approach is valuable in other dimensions of development and one that we at Tzedek hold at the heart of our work. Though FGM is not comparatively prominent in our focus areas, we believe that the most effective way to make change in a community is to support the change coming from within; recognising agency in local people and organisations and valuing their knowledge of their own cultures, communities and challenges is a vital element of sustainable partnerships for development.