An anti-FGM protest in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 (Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, a UN-backed occasion to draw attention to the plight of the estimated 125 million women and girls who have been affected by the practice, and to bolster efforts to eliminate it worldwide.
The umbrella term "Female Genital Mutilation" (FGM) is used to refer to a range of procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is sometimes referred to as "female circumcision" by the communities who practice it, predominantly in Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "Although some would argue that this is a ‘tradition,’ we must recall that slavery, so-called honour killings and other inhumane practices have been defended with the same weak argument. Just because a harmful practice has long existed does not justify its continuation. All ‘traditions’ that demean, dehumanize and injure are human rights violations that must be actively opposed until they are ended."
According to the UN Population Fund, about three million girls undergo some type of FGM every year, the majority of whom are under 15. But due to international and local efforts at eliminating the practice, the numbers are declining in nearly every country.
In 2012, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling on each member state to outlaw FGM, and many of the African countries where the incidence is highest now have laws banning the practice. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, FGM is considered aggravated assault, and may be punished by imprisonment of up to 14 years.
The Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, an initiative of the UN Population Fund and UNICEF, aims to persuade communities that practice FGM to abandon it within a generation. Under the initiative, over 8,000 different communities have done so.
"The challenges we face are not insurmountable," United Nations Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said in a statement this week. "If we work together, we can further accelerate its abandonment and strengthen the momentum for change through our concerted and collective efforts."
The Beninois musician Angélique Kidjo, a recent guest on the show, has been an outspoken activist against FGM. When she was in the red chair this season, she talked to George about the efforts to eliminate the practice in the Republic of Benin, where between 30 and 50 per cent of women are believed to be affected (her comments begin around 5:56):
Eve Ensler, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, is another guest who's spoken out about the practice. In 1998, Ensler launched V-Day, a global initiative to end all forms of violence against women and girls, including FGM. One of V-Day's initiatives involves establishing safe houses where women fleeing FGM can seek shelter. This video documents a visit to one of those shelters, in Kenya:
In England, the first-ever FGM-related case is expected to come to trial within weeks, even though the practice has been banned for 28 years.
For more on the efforts of end FGM, see the website of the Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting and the World Health Organization's FGM Fact Sheet, and check out this video from The Guardian interviewing Kenyan women who have experienced and FGM and even practiced it on others.