Ending female genital mutilation requires tackling deeply embedded discrimination

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Hilde Vautmans [European Parliament]

Today, 6 February, as we mark International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, it is worth remembering how cruel, pointless and destructive FGM is, writes Hilde Vautmans.

Hilde Vautmans is a member of the European Parliament from the liberal ALDE group, Belgium.

When I first began advocating for an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) many years ago as a Belgian MP, I hardly thought that in 2015 the problem would be as acute as it is. I thought that surely such an obviously barbaric practice would end once there was sufficient awareness raising and targeted laws.

However, when I read statistics released last week by the UK Health and Social Care Information Centre, it again brought home to me the uphill struggle we face if this cruelty is to be stamped out. Those statistics showed that between September and December 2014, there were 1,946 newly identified cases of FGM reported in the UK. Initial shock at contemplating those numbers turns to dismay when we realise that they must be modest when compared to the countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where the practice is most prevalent.

Female Genital Mutilation involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs. There are no medical reasons for it to be done, and it is usually carried out on young girls – often between infancy and mid-teenage years.

FGM can be a death sentence, as it not uncommon for victims to bleed to death. It can also be a life sentence when women’s lives are blighted by persistent health problems such as recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility and post-traumatic stress. These legacy health issues can have the effect of excluding women from education and employment.

Having visited countries where FGM is a problem, I know that simply enacting laws against the practice is not enough. FGM occurs in strongly patriarchal societies where discrimination against women and girls is widespread. Real progress will only be made when the families, communities and societies in which FGM is practiced change the way they view women and girls. Change this, and we also go a long way to tackling other ills such as child marriage, domestic violence and sexual violence.

Promoting change in societies where discrimination is so deeply embedded requires comprehensive international programmes that work with communities. These programmes do exist and have been generating significant successes in recent years. However, if we are to rid the world of this scourge, such programmes must be expanded and intensified. 

For this to happen, we need to have the foundation of a strong international development framework which priorities girl’s rights. The international negotiations which will result in this new framework – replacing the millennium development goals – are entering their final phase and over the coming months. It is vital that the EU is a strong voice at the table for the world’s women and girls. Together with my fellow MEPs, I will be vigilant in ensuring that this is the case.

The UN estimates that over 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM, and if current trends continue, about 86 million additional girls will be subjected to it by 2030. In 2015, we can make a big step forward in ensuring these numbers are not realised and that girls in developing countries have the opportunity to live healthy and fulfilled lives.


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