6 February 2016

International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM 2016

Guest blog by Nigeen Dara.

'What is FGM?' A question which unfortunately I get asked very often. It is of great importance that we are aware of issues affecting the lives of many girls and women across the globe because we cannot battle something we have no knowledge about.

On 20th  of December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution by which it
called upon states, the United Nations system, civil society and all stakeholders to observe 6th of February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and to use the day to enhance awareness raising campaigns and to take concrete actions against female genital mutilations. Various activities and events are held on February 6th  each year to promote the UN? campaign to raise awareness and educate people about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM). Public conferences and forums often feature FGM survivors who are invited to share their personal experiences. Other activities include photo essays and round-table discussions on making policies and laws to end FGM.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

This practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure may result in death.

FGM is not an easy subject to talk about. After all, it involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. For this reason, many people do not know this practice exists, or that more than 200 million women and girls around the world live with its consequences today (UNICEF, 2016). For those who do know about FGM, far too many think the practice is here to stay.

However, that is a belief I decided not to adopt. Whether you care about global health, good governance, international development, or human rights, the many stories of FGM are ones we need to hear about, share and combat. As Martin Luther King Jr famously said, 'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter'.

It is important to acknowledge that FGM is a story about inflicting pain on women globally. Many people believe the misconception that Female Genital Mutilation is an African practice. However, FGM is also practiced in the West, Southeast Asia and Middle East. In the Middle East the rates of FGM are highest in Northern Saudi Arabia, Southern Jordan and Iraq, including the Kurdish region. However, cases of FGM have also been discovered in Syria, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In many parts of the world, the practice is carried out by untrained practitioners, without the use of anaesthesia, using unsterilised instruments (razors or blades). Afterwards, girls are at high risk of haemorrhaging, recurrent infections, complications in child birth, and even death. In countries where Ebola has devastated communities, the practice can increase the risk of contracting the disease.

The WHO states that there are no health benefits to FGM – removing and damaging healthy female genital tissue interferes with the natural function of women and girls’ bodies. The health consequences can be high-risk and vary from immediate problems to long-term, damaging effects.
The initial procedure can result in severe pain, shock, bleeding, tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), inability to urinate, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.
But girls are also at risk of abnormal periods, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, pain during sex and lack of sexual pleasure, infertility, childbirth problems and new-born deaths. Young women who have had their vaginal opening sealed will also need to have it cut open again later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.

Survivors also suffer psychological problems following the very often traumatic procedure.

FGM is the story about injustice and inequality. There is no greater evidence of inequality between the sexes than the practice of FGM, it constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice has been outlawed in most countries where it occurs, and some countries, including Ghana and Kenya, have seen a dramatic reduction in prevalence rates. But it wasn’t until recently that Egypt used its law to convict a doctor who performed FGM on 13-year-old Sohair al-Bata’a, who died from the procedure. The conviction came after human rights lawyers and NGOs fought hard for the government to pursue the case. However, despite the law girls and women all around the world continue to be cut.

FGM is the story of social norms and cultural traditions. In so many communities where FGM is prevalent, it is part of a ceremony, a celebration of a girl’s transition to womanhood. Midwives (or sometimes elder women) perform FGM out of love, as a way to prepare a girl for potential marriage or to protect her from becoming a social outcast. That’s how we know that FGM won’t end until communities collectively and publicly declare an end to the practice. From meeting many victims of FGM, I can conclude that the parents who allow the cutting of their daughters do not do so out of maliciousness or cold nature, but as a gesture of protection and to allow their daughters to fit in to society. They may see it as doing their daughters a favour. Furthermore because many of them have not had the benefits of education, they are unaware of the consequences. They see it as abiding by the traditions passed on by their ancestors. The underlying reason behind FGM is to control female sexuality which is a taboo topic in cultures where FGM is practised. They believe that a woman who is not cut has no control over her sexuality. Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing for centuries is a strong encouragement to carry out the practice but it can be overcome.

FGM is a global problem that demands a global solution. And there are several ways in which we can combat FGM, including:

1. Educating women and communities - We need to make girls and women aware of the harmful effects of FGM. This not only empowers women to make choices, but it also educates the women who carry out the procedure. Because men and boys tend to have greater power and influence in cultures that practice cutting it is therefore also necessary to educate men.

2. Increasing legal protection ? FGM campaigners and activists must work closely with governments and community leaders to put in place legal restrictions and make sure they are enforced.

3.Supporting survivors - Those who have suffered FGM need help and support, so it is critical that local health workers are educated on how to provide the appropriate medical support to survivors, addressing their physical and psychological needs.

Instead of quietly tolerating this practice that blights the lives of so many girls and women, authorities across the globe need to move swiftly not only to adopt a law to ban FGM, but to make sure that these laws are implemented and to begin an awareness campaign that targets men, women and families, clerics, health-care providers, and traditional midwives. The government should also ensure that health-care services, including mental-health services, are available for women who suffer pain and emotional distress as a result of FGM. It is a long and difficult journey, but those working to end FGM are heading in the right direction.