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Students and teachers of the Midwifery School in El Fasher, North Darfur. They all recently signed a pledge to stop the practice of female genital mutilation in Darfur.(Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID/flickr/cc)

'Zero Tolerance': A Worldwide Call to Eliminate the Brutal Practice of FGM

UN chief calls for a future 'where every girl can grow up free of violence and discrimination, with full dignity, human rights and equality.'

Deirdre Fulton

Zero tolerance.

That's what the United Nations, health professionals, and those who advocate for women and girls say is necessary to end female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that still plagues millions of women and girls around the world, reflecting deep-rooted inequality between sexes and extreme discrimination against women and children.

"In every country, whether legal or not, medical providers who perform FGM are violating the fundamental rights of girls and women."
—Joint statement from UNFPA, UNICEF, International Confederation of Midwives, International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics

Friday marks the UN's International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, following what the Guardian describes as "12 months of historic change and growing awareness of the practice." 

The focus of this year's commemoration is on the troubling 'medicalization' of FGM, a trend in which healthcare providers engage in the practice, in turn lending their tacit approval. Around one in five girls have been cut by a trained health-care provider, they say, with that number going as high as three in four girls in some countries.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on health workers around the world to eliminate what he called a "deeply harmful" practice, which is concentrated in about 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. The UN claims FGM is a violation of both children's and women's rights to health, security, freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

"If everyone mobilized—women, men and young people—it is possible, in this generation, to end a practice that currently affects some 130 million girls and women in 29 countries where we have data," said the Secretary-General. "I call for all people to end FGM and create the future we want where every girl can grow up free of violence and discrimination, with full dignity, human rights and equality."

According to the UN, the practice has no medical benefits, yet harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies.

Immediate complications can include severe pain and bleeding, shock, infection, and injury to nearby genital tissue. Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for later surgeries.

"Health workers... have a deep understanding of the harmful consequences of this practice," read a joint statement from the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the International Confederation of Midwives, and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, which came together on Friday to issue a call to action for health workers around the world to mobilize against FGM. "And, they also witness the emotional wounds FGM inflicts, trauma which often lasts a lifetime."

"Female genital mutilation violates the human rights and undermines the health and well-being of some 3 million girls each year," said the statement. "FGM is illegal in many countries, and medical providers who perform it in these places are breaking the law. But in every country, whether legal or not, medical providers who perform FGM are violating the fundamental rights of girls and women."

Prevalence in the United States

The Guardian revealed separately on Thursday that 500,000 women in the U.S. are estimated to be at risk of or have been subjected to FGM—three times more than previously thought.

The findings were based on unpublished draft figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seen by the Guardian and supported by new statistics from the non-profit Population Reference Bureau released Friday.

The newspaper reported:

The extent of female genital mutilation in the US has been exposed following pressure from campaigners, including a global campaign against FGM led by Jaha Dukureh, a 25-year-old mother from Atlanta, who was cut as a baby in her home country of Gambia. With the backing of the Guardian, Dukureh launched a petition last May successfully calling for a new prevalence study into FGM and for a working group to be set up.

"This is a huge moment—once we have proper data we can really start taking first steps to end FGM in the US," said Dukureh. "I haven’t seen the CDC study but these draft figures appear to prove what we already knew: FGM is an American problem; we can’t keep on ignoring it; we can’t afford to leave these girls at risk."

In 2014, the U.K. hosted the first 'Girl Summit' in London to tackle FGM and early forced marriage, while the Obama administration announced it would carry out a study to establish how many women are living with the consequences of FGM and how many girls are at risk in the U.S. 

Late last month, a doctor became the first person in Egypt to be convicted of FGM, seven years after the procedure was criminalized in the country where an estimated 90 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone the procedure. The doctor was convicted of manslaughter in the case of a 13-year-old girl who died after undergoing FGM. The international human rights group Equality Now called the ruling a "monumental victory."

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