UNITED NATIONS - After nearly 30 years of intense campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM), the United Nations says that several countries, including Canada, Belgium, Spain and Italy, have passed legislation criminalising the practice, prevalent mostly among immigrant communities.
"There is a greater understanding of the practice as a violation of human rights, as well as its harmful health impacts," says a new U.N. report to be discussed at the upcoming two-week session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), scheduled to take place Feb. 25 through Mar. 7.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM in more than 28 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Every year, about 3.0 million girls and women are subjected to genital mutilation, the U.N. study says.
The 18-page report, titled "Ending Female Genital Mutilation", points out that the impact of targeted interventions to end FGM can only achieve their full potential in the context of enhanced overall efforts to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women.
"Religious leaders should be involved in community-wide campaigns to promote the understanding that FGM has no basis in religious beliefs," argues the report.
In Austria, according to the study, FGM is considered a form of physical assault to which a person cannot give consent. Similarly, Swedish legislation prohibits the practice regardless of the consent of the victim or her parents.
And according to German criminal code, the consent of the parents is considered as an abuse of parental custody. In Finland and the Netherlands, health care professionals have been obligated to report cases involving FGM.
Under Canadian law, forced FGM is considered gender-related persecution and grounds for refugee status. Although Austria and Spain do not list FGM explicitly as a ground for asylum, both countries recognise it in practice.
But in virtually all of these countries, FGM is practiced mostly among immigrant communities
Meanwhile, a number of African countries -- including Ghana, Uganda, Morocco and Eritrea -- have also criminalised FGM in their penal codes or through other laws.
While there is no federal law banning FGM in Nigeria, according to the U.N. report, 11 states have adopted legislation against some "harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation."
Egypt and Yemen have also taken steps to curb the practice within their health-care systems banning health-care professionals from performing it.
The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which has taken an active role against FGM, has been promoting culturally sensitive programming to address the underlying social values of the practice.
Both UNFPA and the U.N. children's agency UNICEF have launched a 44 million dollar programme to reduce the harmful effects of FGM by 40 percent by 2015 "and to end it within a generation." The new initiative encourages communities in 16 African nations to abandon the practice.
Asked if FGM has increased or decreased over the years, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid told IPS: "The hard work and funding efforts of activists and international development and human rights organisations, such as UNFPA, over the decades are showing positive results."
She said there is now widespread awareness about the harmful health effects of FGM and its violation of women's and girl's rights. "This is leading to increased disapproval of the practice among women and men."
She also said that several governments have passed laws against the practice, and where these laws have been complemented by culturally sensitive education and public awareness work, the practice has declined.
In addition, Obaid pointed out, national and international organisations have played key roles in advocating against the practice and providing information on its harmful effects.
"There is a decline in FGM prevalence in countries where FGM abandonment interventions have been going on for some years, such as Eritrea, Kenya, Mali and Nigeria."
"However, despite some of these successes, the overall rate of decline is slow. We must speed it up," Obaid declared.
In 2006, according to the U.N. study, the WHO published its findings indicating a strong link between FGM and obstetric complications. The study included over 28,000 women in 28 obstetric centres in six African countries.
"The results showed that, compared to women who had not undergone FGM, deliveries to women with FGM were significantly more likely to be complicated by caesarean section, post-partum haemorrhage, episiotomies and prolonged maternal hospitalisation," the study noted.
In addition, babies born to mothers with FGM had a greater risk of needing resuscitation immediately after birth and of dying during birth, according to the study.
Asked if countries were doing enough to reduce or eliminate the practice, Obaid said: "While countries have been making efforts to reduce FGM, more work is needed."
For example, she pointed out, the enforcement of laws must be intensified and FGM abandonment lessons integrated into school curricula, including those for health and social workers.
"The international community must show renewed commitment and join hands with national governments to allocate sufficient funds to scale up community, national, regional and global efforts to produce social change," Obaid added.
Asked what role UNFPA plays in the campaign against FGM, she said the practice touches every aspect of the mandate of UNFPA, including reproductive health and rights, gender equality, women's empowerment and adolescent reproductive health.
UNFPA addresses the practice not only because it harms the reproductive and sexual health of women but also because it violates their fundamental human rights.
UNFPA addresses FGM in a holistic manner by funding and implementing culturally sensitive programmes for abandoning the practice, advocating legal and policy reforms, while building national capacity to stop all forms of FGM, he said.
Obaid said her U.N. agency also supports treatment and care for women and girls suffering from its immediate or long-term complications. In addition, UNFPA works on providing women, who do the cutting, with new skills that allow them to generate income, and hence stop performing that practice.
At the country level, UNFPA has formed partnerships with relevant stakeholders, including government ministries, particularly ministries of health, social affairs, finance, gender, youth and education. UNFPA has also developed ties to NGOs, safe motherhood projects, community and faith-based organizations and religious leaders.
At the global level, UNFPA brought together participants from U.N. organisations, faith-based organisations, NGOs, law enforcement agencies and governments to map out ways to eliminate FGM within a generation.
© 2008 Inter Press Service