The United Nations warned Monday that millions of girls remain at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The practice, which involves removing all or part of a girl’s external genitalia, has no health benefit and can cause severe bleeding, infection, pain, and later, complications in childbirth. It is often performed in unsanitary conditions with unsterilized instruments.
Some girls die from the procedure.
Colombian lawyer and anti-FGM activist Patricia Tobón lost three aunts to the practice. “When I was nine years old, my mother told me that three of her sisters had died because their grandmother practiced FGM on them. But her mother rescued her and her other sister from it.”
Tobón is a member of the indigenous Emberá people, the only ethnic group in Latin America known to practice female circumcision.
The tradition is more widely practiced in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The U.N. Population Fund, which works to educate people about FGM’s dangers, estimates that more than 125 million girls alive today have been subjected to circumcision in 29 countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The practice is often considered a “rite of passage” for young girls as they enter puberty. It is associated with the ideals of feminine purity and modesty. Some cultures see it as a means to control a girl’s virginity or fidelity in marriage.
Malian singer and activist Inna Modja, 31, underwent FGM when she was four years old.
“I had the physical pain and I also had the psychological pain,” an emotional Modja said. “I felt I would never become a woman because I had something missing.” She said she lost her identity when she went through FGM. “Cutting me was telling me I’m not good enough. What was I?”
She later had reconstructive surgery which she said helped her to heal “because I was doing something to get back what was taken from me.”
Keziah Bianca Oseka of Kenya was eight years old when she underwent female circumcision.
“I want to stand up and fight this barbaric act with all that I am,” she told the U.N. gathering.
“Since 2007, more than a dozen countries have enacted measures to tackle FGM,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a special event Monday aimed at eliminating the practice by 2030.
“More than 950 legal cases have been prosecuted. And today, nearly all countries where it is prevalent outlaw the practice. We are working to extend that legal protection everywhere,” he added.
But several countries where FGM is widely practiced have not outlawed it, including Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq. In any case, outlawing FGM also does not guarantee that the law is enforced.
The practice has also migrated to Western countries with immigrants. In most European countries, FGM is prosecutable under general criminal laws. In the United States, it is illegal to transport girls to undergo the procedure.
Indonesia, a country of 250 million people, has practiced FGM for generations. The government banned healthcare professionals from performing it in 2006. Some religious groups opposed the move.
“Despite this ban, female circumcision conducted by non-medical practitioners continued to occur throughout Indonesia,” Minister of Women’s Empowerment Dr. Yohana Yembise said Monday. “This put women in a more vulnerable situation than ever,” she added.
In 2010, she said the government revoked the regulation and a new directive has since taken its place, which again prohibits medical professionals from performing FGM.
“We have a lot of homework to do,” Minister Yembise acknowledged. She said eliminating FGM would require cooperation between government and community leaders, civil society and international organizations.
U.N. chief Ban said that more doctors, nurses and midwives have received training about FGM. Many religious leaders are also speaking out against it. “Let us shift the focus away from mutilation to education,” Ban said. “Let us make a world where FGM stands for Focus on Girls’ Minds.”