February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, and the World Health Organization is joining a chorus of voices demanding an end to this injurious procedure, still widely practiced in the developing world.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a dangerous procedure that can cause severe physical problems, including complications in childbirth, maternal deaths, heavy bleeding, and infertility. It also can result in psychological and sexual problems.
The international community considers FGM to be a gross violation of human rights of women and girls that has no health benefits for the victims. Despite increasing calls for its elimination, the practice, also known as female circumcision, remains widespread.
The World Health Organization reports more than 125 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM. The practice is especially prevalent in eastern and western Africa, some parts of Asia, and areas in the Persian Gulf. WHO says the highest rates are found in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt.
WHO Senior Adviser Dr. Lale Say says FGM, due to immigration, is increasing in Europe, the United States, Australia, and Canada, but that more countries are banning the practice.
“There is encouraging increase in the political support to end FGM. We now have 24 countries in Africa who have laws that criminalize the performance of FGM and also in 12 industrialized countries there are strict laws that criminalize, sometimes the family members, but, most importantly health professionals to perform FGM,” Say stated.
Say also said FGM is falling substantially in countries such as Kenya and the Central African Republic. But, she acknowledges, while many laws criminalizing FGM are on the books, they are rarely implemented.
The procedure, which some major world religions, stems from cultural and traditional beliefs that value a girl’s virginity. It is widely believed that FGM reduces a woman’s sexual desire, thereby retaining her purity for marriage.
Ironically, the Ebola epidemic has put a temporary halt to FGM in West Africa, where it is widely practiced.
Andrew Brooks, the regional child protection adviser for the U.N. Children’s Fund, told VOA he does not know whether the temporary ban in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will become permanent.
“I could say in Guinea, there are kind of opposing tendencies. On the one hand, about one-third of the girls that were cut, that would take place in the health centers — usually by the midwives," he explained. "But, because of the people’s fear and kind of resistance to the health system, that level of the practice would have gone down because less people were going to the health centers.”
Brooks suspects the dangerous rite will return when the Ebola threat recedes. He said much effort will be needed to make the temporary ban sustainable in the long term.