Contributed by Meg Hogan, a student at the College of William & Mary studying international relations
Today, more than 200 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), and each year, over 3 million girls between infancy and age 15 are estimated to be at risk. Though considered a global health problem by most intergovernmental organizations, FGM is most common in the western, eastern, and northeastern regions of Africa.
FGM reflects a deeply rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women, one that attempts to control women’s sexuality and ensure premarital virginity. Traditionally performed on young girls between infancy and adolescence, it can cause both immediate and long-term health complications, including severe pain, excessive bleeding, scar tissue and keloid, shock, and even death.
Psychological problems, too, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the trauma of the procedure follow women throughout their lives. FGM deprives women and girls of the opportunity to make critical, informed decisions about their bodies and lives at an early age, reinforcing the idea that women are not equal within their communities.
There is often societal pressure to perform FGM in order to conform to prevailing norms. FGM is also associated with traditional ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are clean and beautiful after the removal of body parts that are considered “unclean,” “unfeminine,” or “male.”
Research has demonstrated that local structures of power and authority such as community officials, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.
However, young leaders can help end FGM within their communities. Here are some tips on how to get started:
Educate Your Community
Reach out to community leaders, teachers, young people, and local medical practitioners. Educate them about the risks and consequences of FGM. Organizations like the Orchid Project have free presentations, resources, and videos for you to use. To reach an even broader audience, hang up anti-FGM posters (under section Myths about FGM) from the World Health Organization within public spaces, such as schools, stores, or community centers.
Empower Young Girls
Establish safe space programmes that offer a varied curriculum, including life skills, health lessons, and financial literacy. Be sure to provide resources for those at risk of FGM as well as survivors of the procedure. Organizations like the Samburu Girls Foundation in Kenya can serve as a model.
Establish a Help Line
When the government of Burkina Faso passed a law prohibiting FGM in 1996, it launched a public campaign to make the law effective; it opened a telephone help line for girls at risk. As a result, the number of convictions has increased and public support for female genital cutting has fallen. Establishing a help line with your local government can have similar effects.
Encourage Collective Abandonment
Families may find it difficult to reject FGM entirely. Those who reject the practice may be ostracized, and their daughters may be seen as ineligible for marriage. However, collective abandonment, when an entire community chooses to no longer engage in FGM, is an effective way to end the practice by ensuring that no single girl or family is disadvantaged.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.