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Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: At Last We Are Making Real Progress

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On the 10th 'International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)' it is heartening to look back at the significant progress that has been made recently both in the UK and further afield. 

The Successes

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a global abuse of children, which has already affected 100-140 million women and girls around the world.  Equality Now has been working in this area for over 20 years and has been a key player in much of the progress made both in the UK and globally.  According to the most recent estimates, 66,000 women and girls have undergone FGM in England and Wales, while 24,000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk of having to undergo it.  Following our recommendation, a new 'Health Passport' was issued last November by the Home Office, aimed at protecting girls who are at risk of being brought abroad to undergo FGM.  Subsequently, Keir Starmer also introduced an 'Action Plan' on how to remove the barriers to prosecution of FGM crime in the UK.  We continue as secretariat for the second year running of the all-party-parliamentary group on FGM and provide advisory and technical support through the FGM Special Initiative, which seeks to strengthen community-based prevention work.  In early January this year, under guidance from Equality Now and other groups, the NSPCC finally decided to specifically include FGM within its existing child protection work.  More recently, the Department of Health and Royal College of Midwives both confirmed that they too are considering the inclusion of FGM-related questions in the information that midwives collect at childbirth.  The UK is well on its way to developing a 'joined-up' response to FGM, which will ensure that existing prevention and prosecution measures are properly implemented in a coordinated way.

There has been reason to celebrate too in the US, with the passing of the 'Girls Protection Act' last December with our collaboration and support.  168,000 women and girls living there have either already undergone, or are at risk of undergoing FGM.  This legislation closes a loophole, which previously made it possible for girls to be taken abroad to be abused.  It also sends a clear message that FGM is a criminal act which carries serious consequences.

Significant progress is also being made in Africa.  In the Gambia, where 78.3% of women have undergone FGM, a national consultative meeting took place this month, which was geared towards introducing a bill banning FGM.  This would pave the way for the country to join the 19 African countries which already have laws against the practice.  In Somalia where the prevalence of FGM is almost universal (98 %) and where religious conservatives push for some form of FGM, the new constitution includes a ban on all forms of "female circumcision".  Egypt has also confirmed this week that it is not revoking its ban on FGM, as had been previously feared.

In Kenya, grassroots efforts continue to focus on changing the mindset of practising communities.  One such initiative is the 'Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative' (TNI), supported by Equality Now with funds from Comic Relief.  TNI provides a haven for Maasai girls who have been alienated due to their rejection of FGM and forced into early marriage.  It was also instrumental in the conviction of the father of 12 year old Sasiano Nchoe and her circumciser.  Sasiano bled to death following FGM.  This unprecedented court ruling that took place in 2010 was facilitated by our Adolescent Girls Legal Defence Fund, with the help of TNI.  Progress can be slow but a recent demographic and health survey in Kenya indicates a decline in the prevalence of FGM among the Maasai community from 93% in 2003 to 73% in 2008.  This means that many many girls have been spared FGM.

The Challenges

Although there have been noteworthy successes on the African continent, huge challenges continue to exist in all countries where FGM is still prevalent.  The lack of political will to either enact or implement legislation to ban it continues to be a problem.  In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pledged to make the elimination of FGM a government priority, but it is still legal and widely practised.  We are not aware of any immediate plans to change this, despite recent discussions with other world leaders on how to ensure justice for Liberian children.  Over 58% of women have already undergone FGM in Liberia, where the powerful Sande secret society continues to carry it out on young girls.  As is the case in Sierra Leone, FGM is a "vote-catcher" and governments avoid asserting their authority when it comes to traditional power structures such as the Sande society.  Our work in Liberia has been two-fold.  We have been supporting local partners in their efforts to gain justice for Ruth Berry Peal, who was kidnapped and forcibly subjected to FGM by the Sande society.  More recently, we have also been concerned about the well-being of journalist Mae Azango, who was forced into hiding after publishing a story on FGM.  Once again, members of the Sande society have threatened to forcibly subject her to FGM.  It is hoped that President Sirleaf will do more to help women like Ruth and Mae, as well as the countless other women and girls who are at risk of undergoing FGM in Liberia.  At this crucial point, we call on Liberia and all other countries where FGM is legal to enact a law which prohibits the practice as a matter of urgency and which fully safeguards the fundamental human rights of girls.  We also call on Indonesia to urgently enact a law which bans FGM from being carried out by medical professionals.  Indonesia's recent 'medicalisation' of FGM puts efforts to eliminate it in serious jeopardy.  In addition, we urge Malaysia not to consider adopting the Indonesian model, as some media reports suggest it may.

The Future

Recent progress illustrates that although we continue to face challenges in our drive to eliminate FGM, a global movement for change is gathering pace.  The Group of African States took a major step forward when it presented a draft resolution to intensify global efforts to eliminate FGM to the United Nations General Assembly.  No Peace without Justice, which steered this effort and involved numerous African governments, should be commended for their leadership on this issue. This led to the UN Global Ban on FGM last December - another key landmark event, as well as a great advocacy tool for the international public to put pressure on governments and UN agencies.

A world without FGM is in sight, but we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that both worldwide legislative change takes place and that educational efforts are drastically increased.  Both practising communities and the general public need to be regularly informed about the extreme harm which FGM does.  In focusing on these two areas, we can ensure that the next generation of girls is properly safeguarded from this enormously destructive and entirely unnecessary practice.  We also recommend that human rights and international trade policies should be integrated where possible to ensure that the global flow of money is used in a way which benefits our most vulnerable members of society.