“There are practices that even our ancestors, if they could return to life, would find outdated and obsolete”, said the famous Malian writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ. Female genital mutilation (FGM) can with no doubt be included in these obsolete yet persistent customs…

Since 2003, on the 6th of February, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is held, with the aim of raising awareness about this practice. On this occasion, WILPF was invited to a discussion panel on “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation”.

What is the current situation regarding female genital mutilation?

So far, about 140 million girls and women throughout the world have already been subjected to circumcision. This mutilation has terrible consequences on girls and women’s health; they are deeply injured, not only physically but also psychologically.

Such mutilation, considered as violation of children and women’s rights, is a social norm deeply rooted in many societies, mainly in African countries but also in other parts of the world such as the Middle East. That is why for so many years FGM was a taboo subject nobody was concerned about, but international awareness has finally been growing now, and things are starting to change.

Over the past few years, the African continent has taken different initiatives to ban FGM, but the representative of the African Union now calls for a zero tolerance policy with the aim of fully eradicating genital mutilation.

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted in December 2012 a resolution that urges countries to implement legislation explicitly banning excision and other forms of violence threatening the health of women and girls, and to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of FGM.

This UN Resolution is a significant milestone towards the ending of mutilation. Yet, as the Ambassador of Italy reminded us, this resolution is not the end of the story but the beginning of a new story. These words must now be turned into concrete actions on the ground, by raising awareness among the populations, implementing efficient legislation and supporting women and girls who have decided to disregard this harmful practice.

Though it is more than necessary to implement effective legislations banning any form of female mutilation, it appears to be insufficient to fully eradicate this phenomenon. According to the ambassador of Burkina Faso, legislative measures are a good mean to achieve significant progress, but they are not enough. Indeed, solely criminalizing FGM without raising awareness might make it be practiced more secretly, which often bears the risk of more dangerous methods… That is why such laws must be complemented by awareness-raising campaigns led by States, NGOs, hospital staff, religious authorities and media: change has to come with education, awareness-raising and advocacy.

A necessary change of mentalities

Most of the panelists such as the Egyptian ambassador deplored that FGM has been mistaken as a religious tradition, and that religious discourse normalizes this crime through the prism of religion. The African Union representative asserted that FGM dates back to very ancient times when the religions of today did not even exist yet. Therefore nobody should have the right to justify such harmful practices on behalf of any religion whatsoever.

That is why the Secretary General of the National Council for Child Welfare, from Sudan, pleaded for the intensification of advocacy efforts and awareness-raising to make people understand that female cutting is NOT a religious obligation and that not being circumcised is good.

Moreover, according to the ambassador of Burkina Faso, it is essential to keep in mind that FGM is not only a women’s business: in order to change the whole society’s view of mutilation, men should also be included in the awareness-raising process, since the social debate on FGM has to be organised at the family level. This would follow the very good example of Sudan, which, through the Saleema Campaign against mutilation, included men in a survey to encourage opening up discussions within families who still consider FGM as a religious duty.

Eradicating FGM throughout the world also requires an international solution, which implies interstate cooperation. Indeed, FGM has been spreading in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, owing to migratory flows. The African Union representative called for joint actions between Africa and Europe as being necessary to efficiently fight mutilation wherever it occurs. Countries like Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands have already taken measures to criminalize FGM, and the European Commission is strengthening its efforts to combat FGM as well.

40 countries around the world have now adopted legislation against female genital mutilation, which is great news! Yet, despite the efforts that have been made so far, there is obviously still a very long way to go… So as the African Union representative said: “the fight must go on!”