Alex Weisman, JHU:
According to a newly released UNICEF report, over 200 million women in 30 countries live with female genital mutilation (FGM). Of these 200 million, half live in just three countries: Egypt, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. The report shattered all previous estimates that projected the number to be around 130 million women and girls and placed the new estimate at an alarming 5.9% of the world’s female population. The World Health Organization defines Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
FGM is not exclusive to just one ethnic, religious, or cultural group. Many politicians and media outlets present FGM as primarily a Muslim problem. However, this conception is false. Reza Aslan, in his famous interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, aptly stated, “[FGM] It’s a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country.” While Alsan is incorrect in generalizing FGM as only a “Central African problem,” (half of girls aged 0-14 years in Indonesia have undergone FGM) his comments are very important in debunking the Western conception of FGM as solely a Muslim issue.
In the last 25 years, many nations under international pressure have passed laws outlawing the procedure and in 2012 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a global ban of the practice. However, these laws are seldom enforced and serve more as symbolic means to improve public relations than as effective enforcement. For example, Burkina Faso, which banned the practice in 1996, has only prosecuted 60 individuals for the crime, even though 76% of women in the country ages 15-49 live with FGM. In Tanzania, mass circumcisions occur in which thousands of girls are cut at the same time, often resulting in numerous deaths. Although FGM is explicitly outlawed, circumcision occurs unabated and at the hands of community leaders. In one case, three girls ran away from their father and sought asylum from a local pastor. When the pastor brought the girls to the local police station, he was beaten for “taking unlawful custody of minors” and coerced into a false confession of rape.
So why is there a serious lack of enforcement? Perhaps the underlying reasons lie with circumcisions’ deeply rooted traditional nature and the power distribution among age demographics and sexes. FGM occurs mainly in rural communities with long standing customs of circumcision. Moreover, the leaders of these communities, who are mostly elderly males, command great respect and vociferously advocate the practice. Members of the communities who may oppose the practice normally do not speak out for fear of being ostracized by those in power. Many government officials tend to look the other way because of political or economic ties to these leaders or because they simply do not want to agitate constituents. In other cases, these officials downright support this backward practice and resort to violence to maintain it, as seen in Tanzania. No matter the form, the result is generally the same, a passive acceptance of the practice – A “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that robs millions of women of their rights and health, in many cases, even before they learn to walk or speak.
Rather than pass ineffective and symbolic laws, the best way to combat FGM is to change the social perception in the communities in which it is practiced and make nations accountable for their lack of action. Education is a crucial part of this fight. By educating communities not only about the dangers of FGM, but also by raising literacy rates, the social perception of the practice will change. Further, the international community must be firm with countries that do not abide by the UN resolution. Nations that ignore their legislative commitments should receive economic sanctions. Since many of these countries are dependent on exporting goods to the global market, such sanctions would be particularly effective. Finally, measures to allow FGM, even when it is performed in clinics by medical professionals (as is the case in Indonesia), should be unilaterally rejected.
It is time for some accountability. The international community must stop lauding the ingenious motions of countries practicing FGM and provide new generations with the tools necessary to end this inhumane practice. According to the UN report, 67% of women and 63% of men ages 15 to 49 who have heard of FGM think the practice should end. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of younger generations do not support FGM. If the current leaders of countries where FGM occurs want any political future, they would do well to listen to their future constituents and to have the fortitude to break off from this abhorrent “tradition.”