The United Nations human rights chief today called for concerted efforts to urgently address female genital mutilation, calling it a form of gender-based discrimination and violence that must be eradicated if women, girls and their communities are to thrive.
“This harmful and degrading practice is not based on any valid premise,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at a high-level panel held in Geneva by the UN Human Rights Council on identifying good practices to combat female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) refers to a number of practices which involve cutting away part or all of a girl’s external genitalia. The practice – recognized globally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women – has no health benefits, causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, according to UN agencies.
Ms. Pillay noted that FGM generates “profoundly damaging, irreversible and life-long physical damage,” and increases the risk of neonatal death for babies born to women who have survived it.
“When FGM is eradicated, communities are healthier,” she added. “Freed of the terrible pain and trauma that FGM creates, girls and women are more able to develop their talents and use their skills. Economic, social and political development can surge forward.”
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in the 29 countries with the highest prevalence rate, more than 125 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM. If current trends persist, as many as 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing this practice over the next decade.
The High Commissioner noted that FGM is not only a form of gender-based discrimination and violence, it represents a way to exercise control over women, and perpetuates harmful gender roles. Among other things, the practice may be traditionally considered necessary to raise a girl “properly” and to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
Justifications for FGM are also linked to what are considered to be the characteristics of a ‘proper’ wife, she stated. “It is believed that the practice preserves a girl’s or woman’s virginity or restrains sexual desire, thereby preventing sexual behaviour that is considered immoral or inappropriate.”
Economic factors, said Ms. Pillay, can also play a significant role in contributing to the persistence of female genital mutilation. In many settings, the families of girls who have been mutilated will receive a better bride price, because the young women concerned are assumed to be more submissive and less likely to seek their own sexual pleasure.
“But FGM can be eradicated, and there are encouraging signs of this at national, regional and international level,” she said.
At the national level, several States have adopted legislation and policies to end FGM, and where laws have been accompanied by culturally sensitive education and public awareness outreach, the practise has declined. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that globally, the prevalence of FGM declined by 5 per cent between 2005 and 2010.
There are several examples of effective programmes at the local level to transform cultural norms through targeted community and national-level actions, including the possibility for older women to question the traditions in which they grew up, said Ms. Pillay.
“Importantly, where political and religious leaders have championed the fight against FGM, mind-sets have rapidly changed, and support for the practice has declined,” she stated.
Ms. Pillay went on to noted that, based on the current annual decrease of 1 per cent, the target of reducing by half the prevalence of FGM will be not be achieved until 2074. She urged effective and concerted action now by all actors, stressing that 60 years is “too long to wait.”