UNICEF finds 200 million affected by female genital mutilation worldwide

Women in Madrid, demonstrate during a protest against female genital mutilation. (Credit: Associated Press)

A new UNICEF report finds that although several countries have shown a decline in the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM, otherwise known as ‘cutting’) in recent years, the practice remains a global concern. According to the data collected from 30 countries worldwide, the number of women and girls who have undergone the procedure in some form has now reached more than 200 million.

Some African countries have shown a decline in prevalence rates of the practice, with figures dropping by as much as almost half among adolescent girls in Benin, Kenya, Egypt, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria. But global figures indicate nearly 70 million more girls and women than what researchers estimated in 2014, due to population growth in some countries as well as new nationally representative data in Indonesia.

Indonesia is, incidentally, one of three countries (the other two, Egypt and Ethiopia) that account for more than half of the women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. Although it has been banned in Indonesia since 2006, around half of girls under age 11 in the southeast Asian nation have reportedly experienced the procedure.

This finding, along with the reports of procedures happening across the globe from Europe, Colombia, the U.S., India to Southeast Asia, indicates that the practice of female genital mutilation is more widespread than researchers thought. Some of the regions where it has been known to be commonly practiced have also changed.

“In countries where data was not available, we had previously only had anecdotal evidence,” said Claudia Cappa, the lead author of the report, in an interview with The Guardian. “We knew Indonesia has a growing population of women and girls, but I would say (these figures) are higher than expected.

“The geographic center is now shifting,” she added. “It’s not just concentrated in Africa, as was long believed. There’s now recognition that the practice is global.”

A story by the New York Times highlights the traditional component to the practice in Indonesian culture. In Indonesia, many women said they are proud of their participation in the ritual, which typically is a less drastic form of FGM that involves a scrape or a nick, as opposed to cutting or carving. In cases like this, FGM is often related to regional practices including Christian and Muslim areas, according to Time, linked to ‘coming of age’ ceremonies or the idea of remaining pure. But opponents of the practice say it stems from patriarchal systems seeking to control women.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM is classified into four types, all of which are associated with short-term risks ranging from hemorrhaging, urine retention, shock and in some cases death. Women often live with infections, painful and irregular menstrual cycles, cysts, sexual dysfunction and infertility, often due to the fact that the practice is often performed in conditions that lack proper hygiene, supplies and medications.

For these reasons, activism against female genital mutilation is on the rise worldwide.

“In every case FGM violates the rights of girls and women,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta in a CNN report. “We must all accelerate efforts – governments, health professionals, community leaders, parents and families – to eliminate the practice.”

According to Time magazine, activists say political will, education and community dialogue are now needed to stem the problem. But according to UNICEF, even in countries where most girls and women are cut, a significant proportion of the population often opposes the practice. In these societies, the practice is often perpetuated by social pressure, fear of rejection or shame.

“It confirms that there is a social obligation, that the practice is relational,” said UNICEF Senior Child Protection Specialist Francesca Moneti in a UNICEF news release.

Still, some progress has been made. Since 2008, 15,000 communities and sub-districts in 20 countries have publicly declared they are abandoning FGM, and surveys have shown that men from countries with high prevalence are becoming even more opposed to the practice than girls or women, according to Time. And with more opponents stepping up to spread awareness of the health risks associated with FGM, more communities with high prevalence are making the decision to abandon the practice altogether.

“In most of the countries surveyed, majority of girls and women who have undergone the practice do not see benefits to it and think that the practice should stop,” Cappa said in the UNICEF news release. “More mothers are aware that FGM/C can lead to their daughter’s, or a girl’s, death. So, there is a better understanding of the consequences, which, in itself, is very important progress.”

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering news, health and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. She has a B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Lawrence University in her home state of Wisconsin. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.