What will the future of FGM look like? Eradication or Perpetuation.


By Helana Reyad

As a woman of Egyptian descent, the topic of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM or FGC) is of particular importance to me. According to UNICEF, FGM in Egypt is widespread, occurring among 70% of girls between the ages of 15 to 19.[1] However, in most countries where this practice is prevalent, a majority of girls undergo FGM before the age of 5.[2] While the exact number of women and girls who have undergone FGM is not known, it is estimated that the practice has impacted 200 million; 44 million of whom are under the age of 15.[3] These statistics do not begin to describe the suffering and loss experienced on account of FGM. Each one of these 200 million individuals has her own story of trauma and pain, but also coping and healing.

This year, to observe the annual International Day for Zero Tolerance for FGM, UNFPA and UNICEF held a high level event at the United Nations. The event celebrated the inclusion of the eradication of FGM in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly through target 5.3 to eliminate all harmful practices against women and girls. The panel was made up of speakers who discussed the cultural, religious, and social reasons that FGM continues to exist and the potential remedies for root causes. For example, Patricia Tobon, an activist and lawyer from Colombia, explained that the motivation behind FGM in some indigenous communities is rooted in a perception that the procedure removes a deformity that girls are born with. An appropriate strategy in this case, she explained, is education on women’s bodies and the health ramifications of cutting. In other places, the FGM is connected to “tradition.” Cornelius Williams, Child Protection Adviser at UNICEF, urges respectful dialogue as the best approach. He believes that when parents understand the harm that is inflicted on their girl children, they will be less likely to continue the practice. Dr. Yohana S. Yambise, the Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection in Indonesia, believes that the best way to tackle FGM is through legislation. According to Dr. Yambise, ending FGM requires cooperation of governments, local leaders, civil society, and international organizations.

The speakers offered different perspectives on how to address and eradicate FGM. However, the most influential speakers, for me, were the survivors of FGM, who gave faces to the statistics. One speaker, Inna Modja, who experienced FGM at the age of 4, told her story. As an adolescent, Modja felt she did not know what she was transitioning into; she knew that that a girl transitions into a woman, but felt that this had been taken from away from her and this caused her both physical and psychological pain. For Modja, cutting signified her worthlessness. It told her that there was something wrong with her. She coped through music as a way express and find herself, but her ultimate healing came from undergoing surgery to repair the damage done by cutting. Through the surgery, Modja felt she reclaimed what was hers after a long and painful journey.

Why is Inna Modja’s story allowed to occur again and again? Why are women and girls continuously subjected to practices that make them feel inferior? In some places, FGM is framed as a way to celebrate a girl’s coming of age. But in truth, it celebrates her family’s, community’s, tradition’s, culture’s control over her body, while she herself is left to mourn the loss of that control. Under the banner of tradition, culture, religion, protection, purity, etc. the female body is shamed and changed - an explicit manifestation of the internalized value, or lack thereof, we place on the female body. 

In a few weeks, Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) will commence, with a review theme to evaluate the progress made on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. I hope that CSW60 will highlight the considerable work still left to accomplish on topics like FGM, and emphasize that without the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls, women’s empowerment and sustainable development are unattainable goals.

Although the statistics available regarding progress made on FGM is not a source of optimism, I firmly believe that its inclusion in the SDGs is a step forward. Its inclusion shines a much needed light on an issue that has been in the crevices of international discourse for much too long. Let us, as civil society, not let inclusion in the SDGs be the last step taken to address FGM. Let’s establish and take real steps to achieve the end of this violence against girls by 2030 – or even before then. Let us make FGM stand for “Finally Girls Matter.”[4]

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern, UNICEF, New York, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] United Nations Press Release, “Secretary-General Urges Shift in Focus from Female Genital Mutilation to Girls’ Education, at Event Marking Commitment to End Harmful Practice by 2030.”