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“Our Girls Are Born Complete”: UN Panel Goals and Strategies for Eliminating FGM

Communication, top-down and bottom-up strategies will be key to tackling one of the world’s most violating and heart-breaking issues.

Foto Italy UN New York / Twitter

It will be imperative to have multilateral cooperation between countries in which FGM is performed in order to have “efficient intervention” against this phenomenon that “[violates] the physical integrity of women in general and girls in particular,” says Burkina Faso’s Minister of Women, National Solidarity, Family and Humanitarian Affairs.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a practice that has already affected more than 200 million girls and women worldwide, with another 68 million girls being at risk of undergoing this procedure. A panel comprised of ministers, directors, and one FGM survivor gathered at the UN to discuss various tactics for achieving the goal of reducing the number of new FGM cases to zero. Ms. Hélène Marie Laurence, Ilboudo/Marchal Minister of Women, National Solidarity, Family, and Humanitarian Affairs in Burkina Faso, provided opening remarks in which she stated that it would be imperative to have multilateral cooperation between countries in which FGM is performed in order to have “efficient intervention” against this practice that “[violates] the physical integrity of women in general and girls in particular.” Ilboudo/Marchal continued by stating that there are four methods that Burkina Faso will attempt to implement in the process of carrying out this strategy: 1. Have vocal advocates that raise awareness about this issue, 2. achieve a collective behavioral change in all the communities where this takes place, 3. mobilize society to take action against FGM, and 4. strengthen the capacity of partners to act.

FGM is viewed as a rite of passage and/or a cultural norm. Ms. Fatou Kinteh, Minister of Women and Social Affairs in the Gambia, elaborated that the only way to combat “social norms” is by ensuring “communication [is] continuous” throughout all available media. This, she explained, includes dialogue between peers in men’s and women’s groups, radio and television programs, information dissemination through advocates that are trained in the areas of FGM and human rights, school intervention, better educated midwives and nurses, journalists that report on these cases, and better trained law enforcement. She praised the fact that this topic is no longer “taboo” in several areas, but also acknowledged the need to strengthen communication across all these channels.

In addition to communication, the involvement of community leaders (with an emphasis on religious leaders) need to be involved. As Dr. Maya Morsy, President of the National Council on Women in Egypt, explained, “you can have the best legislation in the world,” but it is also necessary to change the prevailing attitude at the community level amongst both men and women (especially those of older generations) in order to really begin to advance change. Morsy added that “educational material in schools,” legislation at the national level, dramatic depictions in TV and film, and finding more individuals to “champion” this cause are all suggestions from Egypt regarding strategies to tackle FGM.

Mr. Rafail Walangitan, Assistant Deputy for the Protection of the Rights of Women Workers in Indonesia, remarked on the mostly symbolic nature of the practice, at least within Indonesia’s borders. He underscored the need for action to be taken with the help of religious leaders in local communities. Walangitan stressed that these leaders need to be made aware that there is no medical benefit to the girls and women that undergo these procedures, and then disseminate this information throughout their areas.

Europe was not absent during the discussion on this panel. Both Italy and the U.K. were represented, respectively, by Ms. Laura Menicucci, Head of the Department for Equal Opportunities, and by Mr. Darren Welch, Director of Policy for DFID. Menicucci and Welch spoke about the immigration side of the issue, which caused the need for both countries to enact legislation criminalizing FGM and preventing impunity for its perpetrators. On a hopeful note, Welch stated that the “levels of social acceptance are falling” for FGM because of efforts already initiated by the countries pledging to educate the public about the physical, psychological, and emotional dangers of this practice. At the same time, he warned that these efforts will need to continue to grow to keep up with the increasing world population—there are, as mentioned above, 68 million girls still at risk.

It was at this point that a brief video screening took place (“One Voice to End FGM”) and where Ifrah Ahmed was given the floor. She narrated her personal experience as a survivor of medically executed FGM (which is performed with surgical tools as opposed to broken glass or stone, as was the experience of one of Ahmed’s acquaintances in the refugee camp), and why she started the Ifrah Foundation, stating, “It happened to me, but I don’t want another girl to suffer these consequences.” She spoke about heart-wrenching stories where 10-year-olds bled to death or died because of complications from FGM.

Yet, again, there is a great sense of hope and determination to achieve the declared goal of completely eliminating FGM by 2030. Ahmed spoke about the girls her campaign was able to save because of an open and forward media strategy; in the refugee camp in Ireland, none of the women wanted to speak openly about their experiences with FGM, but now the stigma surrounding it is diminishing more and more with each new voice that speaks up and against it. Mr. Dereje Wordofa, Deputy Executive Director of Programme at UNFPA, firmly stated, “Our girls are born complete.” This movement began in Africa with strong female leaders and will continue to flourish because of them; if all nations cooperate, if both men and women are actively involved together, there is no reason to doubt the possibility of reaching 2030 as an FGM-free world.

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