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A call to action as female genital mutilation persists in Africa

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Anti Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) protesters hold placards outside the National Assembly in Banjul on march 18, 2024, during the debate between lawmakers on a highly controversial bill seeking to lift the ban on FGM. Gambian legislators voted on March 18, 2024 to advance to the next parliamentary stage a highly controversial bill that seeks to lift a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been in place since 2015. The issue has divided the tiny West African nation for months, with hundreds gathering to protest outside parliament. Picture: Muhamadou Bittaye / AFP

By Tinuade Adekunbi Ojo

As we continue to commemorate International Women’s Month, we reiterate the call to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. FGM remains a deeply entrenched practice in many parts of Africa despite significant efforts to eradicate it, analysts say.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or infliction of injury upon the female genital organs, carried out for non-medical reasons. FGM continues to affect millions of girls and women across the continent, according to experts. The persistence of this harmful tradition underscores the urgent need for concerted action to end it once and for all.

Across Africa, FGM is prevalent in numerous countries, with varying degrees of severity and prevalence. In countries such as Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt, FGM rates remain alarmingly high, with prevalence rates exceeding 90 percent in some regions, analysts say.

However, it is crucial to note that FGM is not limited to these nations; it persists in across the continent, including Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, and Kenya. Despite decades of advocacy and awareness campaigns, FGM continues due to deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, societal pressure, and a lack of access to education and healthcare.

In many communities, FGM is considered a rite of passage, a prerequisite for marriage, or a way to preserve virginity and ensure chastity. These misconceptions perpetuate the cycle of violence against women and girls, denying them their fundamental rights to bodily autonomy, health, and well-being.

One of the most concerning aspects of FGM is its prevalence among young girls, who are often subjected to this practice before they reach adolescence. The physical and psychological consequences of FGM are profound and enduring. Immediate risks include severe pain, bleeding, infections, and even death. Long-term complications may include urinary problems, sexual dysfunction, childbirth complications, and psychological trauma. The impact of FGM extends far beyond the individual, affecting families, communities, and societies at large.

Efforts to combat FGM have gained momentum in recent years, with governments, NGOs, and grassroots organisations working tirelessly to raise awareness, change social norms, and enact legislation prohibiting the practice. Many African countries have passed laws banning FGM, but enforcement remains a challenge, particularly in rural areas where traditional practices hold sway and where resources for law enforcement are limited. An example is the bill before The Gambia Parliament to reverse the ban on FGM. According to Al Jazeera and Reuters, activists such as Sadia Hussein from Kenya have made a call for gender stakeholders to give their support to ensure the FGM ban remains permanent in The Gambia.

To effectively combat FGM, a multifaceted approach is necessary, addressing both the root causes and consequences of this harmful practice. Education is central to challenging cultural norms and empowering girls and women to assert their rights. Community-based interventions, led by local leaders and influencers, are essential in changing attitudes and behaviours towards FGM. Healthcare services should be readily available to survivors of FGM, offering comprehensive medical care, counselling, and support to alleviate both the physical and psychological consequences of the procedure.

International co-operation and solidarity are also crucial in the fight against FGM. Global partnerships can provide much-needed resources, expertise, and advocacy to support national efforts to eliminate FGM. Platforms such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for prioritising women’s rights and gender equality, including the eradication of harmful practices like FGM.

Furthermore, engaging men and boys is vital in challenging patriarchal systems that perpetuate FGM. Girls, while unequivocally rejecting harmful practices that jeopardise their well-being. By promoting gender equality and challenging traditional notions of masculinity, men can become agents of change in ending FGM and other forms of gender-based violence.

While progress has been made in reducing FGM prevalence in some countries, much work remains to be done. Ending FGM requires sustained commitment, resources, and political will at all levels. Governments must prioritise the enforcement of laws banning FGM, invest in education and healthcare services, and engage communities in dialogue and action to abandon this harmful practice.

Ultimately, the eradication of FGM is not just a health or human rights issue; it is a moral imperative. Every girl and woman has the right to live free from violence, discrimination, and harm. By working together, we can create a future where FGM is consigned to history books, and all girls can grow up healthy, safe, and empowered to fulfil their potential. It is time to unite in solidarity and end this egregious violation of human rights once and for all.

Tinuade Adekunbi Ojo is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg (UJ)