After decades of work by feminist activists, including the late Efua Dorkenoo, female genital mutilation (FGM) is finally a priority issue on the international policy agenda.
It is no longer considered a supposedly “cultural practice”, which certain girls should endure, but is correctly understood as a human rights violation and an extreme form of violence against women and girls. International awareness of the issue has increased in recent years too, with much increased media attention.
FGM is the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits, but carries plenty of health risks, including lifelong complications and death. FGM is usually carried out on girls under the age of 15 – and increasingly on babies and very young girls. According to UNICEF, it has affected over 200 million women and girls globally, but this survey is limited to certain countries, so the real global number is likely to be substantially higher.
African women activists have been spearheading efforts to end FGM in their own localities. In Kenya, Agnes Pareyio travelled throughout Maasai territory with a wooden vagina, showing Kenyans the harmful physical effects of this abuse of girls.
In 1999, she set up the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI), a rescue centre for girls running away from FGM. Since then, she and her team have broken the cycle of abuse. They have held over two dozen reconciliation ceremonies, where girls who were previously at risk of FGM are reunited with their families, after they agree that she will be protected from it.
Thanks in large part to the work of TNI and other local organisations, Kenya is now leading the way globally in terms of ending this abuse. Prevalence has fallen to 11% for teenage girls – significantly lower than for middle aged adult women, where the figure is closer to 50%.
A lot of progress has been made at national policy level in recent years in several countries. FGM has been outlawed in both Nigeria and The Gambia, but others such as Sudan, Mali, Liberia and Sierra Leone have yet to ban it.
When you delve a little deeper into UNICEF’s 2016 statistics, it’s clear that some countries are finding it more difficult than others to reduce FGM prevalence. While Kenya and Burkina Faso are reducing it relatively quickly, Egypt, Guinea, The Gambia, Sudan, Mali and Sierra Leone continue to struggle with high percentages and have failed to seriously address the issue. For girls under 14, West Africa has the three worst places in the world for FGM prevalence, with Mali (where FGM is legal) by far the highest at 74℅.
In terms of the overall levels of FGM at national level, Somalia is worst at 98%, but even in this country, some women’s groups are having profound impact. In Puntland, Somalia, Hawa Aden Mohamed founded the Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development in 1999 to protect girls from FGM, with a keen focus on education. It provides free schooling to more than 800 poor, orphaned, and displaced girls at primary level, and to 1,600 girls over age 13 in "non-formal" education. Jane Fonda recently published a video, which highlighted the incredible work of the Galkayo Center – one of many examples of front-line groups who are protecting girls from FGM every single day.
Although major progress is being made by groups such as the Galkayo Center in Somalia and TNI in Kenya, funding for anti-FGM activists doing this hazardous work in their localities is still at extremely low levels. International awareness has been raised, but funding has not been significantly increased to front-line organisations, where it can be used most effectively.
In response to this trend, two years ago today, Donor Direct Action launched the Efua Dorkenoo Fund, which, as with all of the organisation’s sub-grants, has flipped the donor equation. As well as providing ongoing support and facilitating opportunities, it re-grants at least 90% of raised funds directly to front-line partners around the world, so money gets to where it is most needed.
Unless we manage to dramatically increase funding to local anti-FGM groups, we may miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to make a truly lasting difference in the lives of women and girls. Rather than financing management consultants in London or New York, it is time to ensure that those leading the change are provided with the finance they need to continue the amazing work that they already know how to do.
Please make a donation today, International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, and help these amazing African groups continue to protect every single girl at risk.