Action to end female genital mutilation (FGM) has come a long way since pioneering anti-FGM campaigner Efua Dorkenoo OBE first spoke of it as a violation of girls' rights over 30 years ago. Then, and for many years after, FGM was largely viewed as a cultural practice which didn't warrant interference. Now, FGM has the attention of the world and concrete plans are being put in place to finally end it.
Although there is a still much work to be done during 2017 and beyond, the start of a new year provides a good opportunity to reflect on what has already been achieved.
To start with, FGM has been recognised as the severe human rights abuse it is, and not just because it physically and psychologically damages girls and women. Ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources, and not subjecting women and girls to discriminatory and harmful practices such as FGM is now acknowledged as benefiting society as a whole.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by governments are aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all. These cannot be accomplished without SDG 5, which aims to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls". Crucially, this includes the elimination of "all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation."
FGM has been recognised as a global issue and its elimination, alongside child, early and forced marriage, was made a global priority in recognition that with the increasing movement of peoples across boarders means that FGM is increasingly found in countries where it is not a traditional practise.
What is also key is the increasing acceptance that harm to women and girls doesn't just happen "in those communities". Rather FGM is just one manifestation of discrimination perpetrated against women and girls the world over. By underlining the interconnections between how women and girls are viewed and how they are treated, we can better chart a future path that supports women and girls everywhere to benefit from education and employment opportunities and to make their own life choices, free from violence and discrimination.
Concrete measures are now being taken to address FGM. This has included enactment and enforcement of laws against FGM. African countries are now taking the lead. The African Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa calls explicitly for prohibition and condemnation of FGM, and this is being promoted by public awareness and prevention programmes and support for survivors of the practice.
Individual countries have also made investment which is having an impact. In Kenya for example, prevalence rates in 2014 were 21% compared to 27% in 2008-9 and 32% in 2003. Kenya has constituted an anti-FGM Board and an anti-FGM Unit under the Director of Public Prosecutions which has greatly stepped up efforts to investigate and enforce the law and educate communities.
The UK's Girl Summit in July 2014 was a high-profile event launching global commitments to end FGM and child, early and forced marriage, helping to maintain an international focus for, and spur acceleration of, change.
DfID is also funding The Girl Generation, an African-led social change communication initiative to galvanise further change to end FGM.
Media in the UK deserve a strong mention too, particularly the London Evening Standard, as well as the Guardian, Observer, The Times and The Sunday Times, Channel 4 and the BBC which have done well in situating FGM as a child abuse and human rights issue and to focus on the voices of survivors in steering change.
In the US, Equality Now and Safe Hands for Girls co-hosted a US End FGM/C Summit in December 2016 in Washington, DC to provide a comprehensive blueprint for government departments across the country to work together in ending FGM and to provide effective services for survivors and those at risk.
Although there are still significant challenges, it is encouraging to see sustained focus and better global and local collaboration on this issue across sectors.
None of this could have been achieved without the persistence and concerted efforts, usually on a shoe string, of grassroots, community and women's rights groups which, together with committed individuals and supporters, keep progress moving. They need to be supported, including with significant and sustained funding.
Increasingly we are seeing young, bold activists, including many survivors, speaking out for change. Working together, the future looks bright.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. An international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and FGM.
For more information about Equality Now's ongoing work to end FGM please go www.equalitynow.org