“If laws at a local level do not apply and are not strict enough, the effort of the international community against FGM will be in vain,” Concha López, director of the NGO Plan International, told EurActiv.es.
“It is a practice that violates the most basic rights of girls and women and has serious physical and psychological consequences for them. FGM should be a priority and part of the international agenda: we must stop this at once", López added.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, and can cause severe bleeding, infertility and infections.
Almost 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone such mutilations, around half of them in Africa and Yemen. The figures are also increasing in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States, mainly among immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia, according to UNICEF.
In many countries, particularly in Africa, FGM has often been defended as a part of ethnic identity, or for being consistent with traditional and religious beliefs. “This is the crux of the issue,” López said.
In Guinea-Bissau, one of the West African countries where Plan International works, almost 50% of girls continue to be victims of genital mutilation.
In 2012, the country’s parliament passed a law banning FGM, a significant step towards its elimination in the country. “This was a move in the right direction and a good example for other African countries, but certainly not enough,” López said.
FGM has also an economic side, and can be seen as big business or a source of income for many families. “There are midwives who engage in these practices as a business,” López explained. “We also have a challenge there, trying to promote a big change in mentalities".
Sawandim Sawo, 68, who practised FGM for 18 years before joining Plan’s FGM project told the NGO's website that the FGM practitioners had a “special status” in their community. “They are seen as professors or doctors of the community,” he said. “I was very proud to be an FGM practitioner and didn’t know of the serious health problems it caused to girls and women.”
Because mutilation has become linked with other cultural practices, tackling it can sometimes seem to undermine broader cultural foundations. “It is very complex to eradicate because it is deeply rooted in the society and, in many cases, related to the 'purity' of women,” López said.
In many African countries, women who have not undergone FGM are stigmatised and cannot find husbands, López said.
“This issue must be handled with a lot of diplomacy if we are to persuade local communities that FGM should not be part of a girl’s education,” López said.