UN calls for ban on 'grotesque practice' of female genital mutilation

NOTE: This article contains graphic content that may be triggering for some readers.


By Baruch Ben-Chorin

In 1970, when Waris Dirie was a 5-year-old in Somalia, her mother held her down on a rock. She gave her a piece of root from an old tree.

"Bite on this," she said. Her mother leaned over and whispered: "Try to be a good girl. Be brave for Mama, and it will go fast." Then, an old woman who was with them in the African bush cut off parts of her genitals with a broken razor blade.

With this graphic description, in her 1997 book "Desert Flower" an international bestseller, Dirie became one of the leading activists in a global campaign against female genital mutilation, or FGM — a practice that millions of girls are subjected to each year.

On Thursday, in a major victory for that campaign, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a global ban on FGM.

The resolution urges the 193 U.N. member states to condemn the practice, and to launch educational campaigns to eliminate it. It urges all countries to enact and enforce legislation to prohibit FGM, to protect women and girls "from this form of violence" and to end impunity for violators. Although not legally binding, UN General Assembly resolutions carry considerable moral and political weight.

Activists hailed the U.N. move.

"This an important moment for everyone engaged in the fight against FGM — and most particularly for all the girls and women who have been affected by this grotesque practice," said José Luis Díaz, U.N. representative for the non-profit rights group Amnesty International, which was among the groups that pushed for the resolution.

"The UN resolution places FGM in a human rights framework and calls for a holistic approach, stressing the importance of empowerment of women, promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive health and breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence.”

The procedure, as detailed in Dirie’s book, is often crude, painful and dangerous — leading to many fatal infections.

After cutting her genitals, the old woman used "thorns from the Acacia tree to puncture holes in my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the holes to sew me up,” she wrote. “My legs were completely numb, but the pain between them was so intense that I wished I would die."

"Lying there alone with my legs still tied, I could do nothing but wonder, why? What was it all for? At that age I didn’t understand anything about sex. All I knew was that I had been butchered with my mother’s permission."

Dirie fled her Somali community, and an arranged marriage, at 13, and went on to become a top model, and an actress in one of the James Bond movies. In 2002 she set up Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna to support her work against FGM.

FGM is often undertaken to reinforce traditional beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, according to the World Health Organization. Many communities believe the process, also called female circumcision, reduces a woman's libido and therefore reduces the chances of her engaging in premarital or extramarital sex.

When a vaginal opening is closed off or narrowed through the process, the pain of opening it, and the fear that it would be found out, is considered further deterrent to "illicit" sexual intercourse.

Though no major religious writings prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support. Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others condemn it and contribute to its elimination.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, an estimated 92 million girls age 10 and older have undergone FGM.

Amnesty International estimates 3 million girls face FGM each year. The group says the practice is commonplace in 28 countries in Africa, as well as in Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and in certain ethnic groups in South America. It also occurs in among immigrant communities, including those in Europe and the United States, though it is unclear how frequently.

Thursday’s U.N. resolution could have a significant impact on halting FGM, according to Amy Fairbairn, director of communications for Tostan, a non-profit development organization working in Africa. But because FGC is a social norm in some countries and regions, she believes change requires more work on the grassroots level. (The organization prefers to use term "female genital cutting" because it is less judgmental.)

"The ban reaffirms an important message that the international community does not believe female genital cutting should continue," she said. "At the country level, it may help more countries to look at this practice and to look at the most effective ways of approaching it."

She said that Tostan promotes the end to GFC within communities as part of an overall human rights program, which generates more homegrown incentive for change.

"There is tremendous progress under way," she said. "Most notably for us, there is historic progress in the growing movement to end FGC in West Africa, where to date nearly 6,000 communities have publicly abandoned the practice, over 5,000 of those in Senegal alone where the FGC-Free Senegal movement is really gaining momentum."


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