There's a saying that states: "A lot of problems in the world would disappear if we talk to each other." That appears to be one solution to the problem of female genital mutilation in Asia.
According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation, or FGM, involves all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It's carried out for what is considered traditional reasons in many communities. However, FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children.
Claudia Cappa, a statistics specialist with UNICEF, told VOA's Frances Alonzo that ending the practice can be as simple as having couples, families and communities talk to each other about it.
We have evidence that the practice exists, at least in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s not done as a national practice, if you would, but given the size of the population of women living in these countries, we are still talking about a large number of girls and women. For these countries, however, we do not have representative data.
ALONZO: Why is that?
CAPPA: It’s only very recently, that data collection on these traditional, harmful practice has been collected. There has not been such a demand, if you want, for data.
ALONZO: Wouldn’t this come to light in childbirth?
CAPPA: Of course, this is a crucial moment in a woman’s life, when those affected by the cuttings, specifically the most invasive forms, this is when it becomes particularly difficult for women to deliver.
ALONZO: What comes to mind is female genital mutilation versus male circumcision. How do they differ and how are they similar?
CAPPA: They are extremely different. Female genital mutilation is clearly an indication of oppression against girls and women. It was conceived, it was started as a tradition, as a form of clearly discriminatory practice against women and girls. It’s related to their sexuality. It’s a form of control. And in the majority of countries for which we have data, the majority of men and women are against the continuation of the practice.
The practice continues because of social pressure, particularly women. They feel obliged to conform to what is seen as a tradition. They think that this is what is expected from the society in the communities where they live from their husbands and from their religious leaders.
So we need to make sure that we promote dialogue. We make sure that the opposing attitudes versus the practice are brought to light. We have to facilitate this dialogue between husbands and wives across generations. And in the communities, where the practice takes place, because we want to shift in a way, the social norm that keeps the practice in place.
ALONZO: But how do you talk about such a sensitive subject within a marriage, and respect that marriage and those decisions? I mean, it could come across as meddling, could it not?
CAPPA: Of course, that’s why having a very sensitive approach to the promotion of this dialogue is very important. UNICEF is also very careful in the terminology we use with respect to the practice. We talk about empowering families and community for the gradual abandonment of the practice of female genital mutilation.
Again, women and men do not necessarily talk. And in a country like Egypt, we have data that confirm that women tend to underestimate the proportion of boys and men who are against the practice. They think men want it. And in some cases they do. But in others, men are against the practice. The problem is that women do not know. And there is no dialogue. It’s considered a “woman” thing. So women do not necessarily ask men’s opinion. And men don’t necessarily feel empowered to have a say.
ALONZO: It sounds like a strange statement coming from you saying that men don’t feel empowered to talk about it.
CAPPA: Because this is a woman thing. As [are] many others. The care of the house, the care of the children. It’s a woman issue. So men don’t feel like they have a say or they can’t interfere. They don’t necessarily feel like want to change the course of a practice that has been in existence but they may still be against. And many women are also against it. The problem is they feel that they are the only ones against or they don’t feel like they can speak up.