According to the World Health Organization, about 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and many girls have died as a result of being mutilated. Many organizations are working to end the practice of FGM, and today is the Ninth International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, a day to raise international awareness of the practice of female genital cutting, and to promote its eradication.
So what is FGM? Also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, FGM is a set of procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The word "mutilation" has been the cause of some debate - many African anti-FGM activists strongly advocate using the term "mutilation" rather than "circumcision", since "mutilation" leaves no doubt about what the practices entail: medically unnecessary and often highly damaging damage to the body.
The World Health Organization states that in some cultures, FGM is motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. These procedures are often carried out by traditional circumcisers, although increasingly the mutilations are done by health care providers, usually while the girls in question are younger than 15 years.
This year's Day of Zero Tolerance is focused on enacting more comprehensive legislation around the world to make FGM illegal. On September 30, 2011, Switzerland joined a list of countries (including Canada) that makes performing FGM an imprisonable offense. But more than legislation is needed: according to Elise Johansen, a Medical Anthropologist for the WHO, getting communities to change such a deeply ingrained cultural tradition can be extremely difficult. "Most people do it because everybody else does it and that is how it has always been done," Johansen says.
Still, there is some evidence that things are changing for the better. In recent years, some countries where the practice of FGM is common have begun to abandon the practice. The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme for the Acceleration of the Abandonment of FGM/C just released a new report indicating that approximately 2000 African communites abandoned FGM in 2011, bringing the total number of communities who have renounced the practice to around 8,000 over the last few years.
The Guardian has a powerful essay about female genital cutting from Fatou Mandiang Diatta, aka Sister Fa, an award-winning Senegalese urban soul and hip-hop star who uses her music to campaign for human rights and an end to the practice. Check out her take on the issue, and how important it is to include youth in the solution, right here.