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We Cannot Eradicate Extreme Poverty Without Confronting the Root Causes of FGM

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Last April, Prime Minister David Cameron, along with Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, were appointed by Ban Ki-moon as joint chairpersons for a high-level UN panel, the aim of which is to decide what should be prioritised after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) end in 2015.  Prime Minister Cameron has stated that a key objective of the panel is the eradication of extreme poverty.  Indonesian President, Yudhoyono suggests that this can provide "sustainable growth with equity", while President Johnson Sirleaf specifically mentions social and economic progress as something which can advanced alongside - and is dependent on - the increased participation and empowerment of women.

It is particularly interesting that the UK, Liberia and Indonesia should be directly involved in the future of the MDGs from 2015 onwards - and specifically in the area of poverty eradication.  It does not take much analysis to join the dots - as President Johnson Sirleaf does - between the eradication of extreme poverty in the economically-developing world and the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, an MDG in its own right. 

Dealing with gender inequality starts with tackling the root causes of all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) such as female genital mutilation (FGM).  As long as these inequalities are not dealt with, the participation and empowerment of girls is not possible and the eradication of poverty remains a dream, where half of society is harmed for the [supposed] benefit of the remainder.  However, nobody benefits either economically or socially in an unequal society where VAWG is permissible.

Neither Liberia nor Indonesia has shown any real commitment to ending FGM and consequently, it can be concluded that neither has shown a real commitment to eradicating extreme poverty.  More than 58% of Liberian women have undergone FGM, yet there is still no ban in place, despite earlier governmental promises to the contrary.  In late January, along with local partners, we finally ensured justice for Ruth Berry Peal, who was drugged, forcibly mutilated by the Sande secret society and held in the bush for over a month.  We are greatly concerned about Ruth's safety, yet the Liberian government is doing little to her - or indeed the other thousands of girls who are still at risk of FGM and are forced to drop out from formal education by staying as much as six months in the bush in preparation of womanhood.  Meanwhile, in Indonesia, according to a 2003 Population Council study, 86-100% of girls aged 15-18 had undergone some form of FGM, while recent moves to 'medicalise' the practice there jeopardise decades of work to eliminate it entirely.

Considering the poor record of both Liberia and Indonesia in dealing with the basic right of half its population to a life free from violence, we are reliant on the remaining panel member, the UK, to lead the effort.  Last month's announcement by the Department for International Development (DfID) that £35m would be provided to help eliminate FGM in Africa and elsewhere is a clear indication that the UK is committed to ending VAWG in line with the eradication of extreme economic inequality.  This reflects the panel's aim of ensuring that wealthier countries play a direct role in benefitting the economically-developing world and is a step in the right direction towards integrating the provision of human rights into international policy making.

With this new source of funding, the UK has positioned itself as a true global leader in the elimination of FGM.  However, it is not starting from scratch.  We know that FGM prevalence has been falling among the young in some countries in the African region - albeit not as quickly as we might like.  According to the most recent Demographic and Health Surveys data on the prevalence of FGM, the countries which have shown significant reductions between older and younger women are Kenya (30.50%) and Burkina Faso (27.50%).  In engaging with countries on FGM, it is vital that at a policy level, DFID does not convey a sense of carrying 'colonial baggage' by treading on 'egg shells' on the issue. Instead, it should recognise that the campaign to eliminate FGM has already come a long way in Africa - from the 1980s when FGM was highly politically -charged and was literally a 'no-go area' - to today when African women are speaking out for themselves against the practice and Africa Nations have been leaders in calling for a global ban on FGM.

It is essential that we take the lead from Africa on this issue.  The protocol of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of women in Africa, which is currently in force - spells out the comprehensive approach which African countries want to take with respect to addressing practices such as FGM and other forms of VAWG which inhibit the full participation of women.  It requests that states should take all necessary child protection, legislative and education measures to eliminate such practices - as well as the provision of essential support to survivors.  To achieve these objectives the African Union has pronounced 2010-2020 to be the 'Decade for African Women'.

The UK is now in a privileged position and can make real progress in the elimination of FGM and other forms of VAWG side by side with the eradication of extreme global poverty.  The two objectives go hand in hand; in many ways they are the same thing. If we move carefully, the development advances we can now make will be nothing short of earth-shattering.