International agencies are calling for an end to female genital mutilation, which every year threatens some three million girls in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and in some Western countries. The appeal is part of the observance of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.
An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide currently live with the consequences of female circumcision, in which the female external sexual organs are partially or totally removed.
The procedure, also known as female genital mutilation, is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15. Advocacy groups agree it has no health benefits for girls and women and can cause severe bleeding and many other serious physical and psychological complications throughout life.
The practice continues mainly in 28 African countries.
The Director of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, Berhane-Ras-Work, calls female genital mutilation torture. She says the practice persists because it is deeply rooted in tradition. This patriarchal system, she says, is embraced by the community and even by the women, despite the suffering and pain they go through.
"The patriarchal system has fabricated a lot of control mechanisms in order to keep women subordinate, in order to manipulate women, in order for a woman to be a subordinate wife to her husband," she said. "Women go as far as accepting to be mutilated in order to be eligible, in order to be a virgin, in order to be faithful to her husband, in order to be acceptable by the community."
The International Organization for Migration says female circumcision is spreading with global migration. It says the practice is now a reality in many immigrant communities in countries in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand,
But, progress toward eliminating this procedure is being made.
Twenty African nations now have laws against female circumcision. And, figures show a drop in prevalence by 50 percent or more in eight countries.
The World Health Organization is campaigning to stop the so-called medicalization of female genital mutilation. Elise Johansen, a medical officer in WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, says more health providers in some African and Western countries are carrying out this procedure.
"This is a more serious concern almost than we expected because last year there was an American Association for Pediatrics who promoted that health care providers should reach out to the communities and offer a ritual nick," said Johansen. "WHO and other UN agencies and professional organizations and NGO’s struck back very fast and they have withdrawn it."
Dr. Johansen says occasionally, suggestions are made to allow some sort of medical intervention believing it to be a form of harm reduction that will satisfy cultural needs.
But, she notes there is no evidence this will do any good. On the contrary, she says WHO and its partners are worried this will promote and help continue the practice of female circumcision.