February 8, 2011
Faiza Jama Mohamed
Last weekend, the world commemorated the eighth International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Every year three million women and girls in Africa continue to be at risk of undergoing FGM.
Just a few decades ago, not just African nations, but even international agencies and human rights organisations were reluctant to address FGM because of misgivings that it was a cultural right.
It took the hard work of African women’s rights activists to clarify to the world that FGM is in fact a form of violence against women and girls perpetuated in the name of religious/cultural identity.
As a result, several human rights bodies today condemn FGM as a human rights violation and The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa explicitly calls for the legal prohibition of FGM. Eighteen of 28 African countries have outlawed FGM.
However, it is sadly not yet time to pat ourselves on the back. All across Africa, FGM continues to be openly practised by communities with flagrant disregard for the law.
Ten African countries where FGM is practised still don’t even criminalise it and the FGM prevalence rate shockingly continues to be around 90 per cent in too many African countries.
We hear of retaliation against anti-FGM activists, journalists, and local police who investigate cases in many countries.
The average age of girls subjected to FGM is getting lower across the continent and it is becoming increasingly common for medical facilities and professionals to offer FGM.
The reality surrounding us is grim and we need more than just rhetoric about ending FGM from political leaders and nation states alike.
As the saying goes “it takes two to tango”, and taking on the indomitable task of ending FGM clearly cannot be the sole responsibility of anti-FGM advocates.
Governments have an equal if not bigger part to play. African governments need to take several urgent steps to end FGM.
First, they must criminalise the practice and commit to protect each and every girl. This commitment must be echoed in government agencies including law enforcement, justice system, education and health departments.
Second, owing to the sheer scale of the problem, governments must dedicate increased resources for implementation of anti-FGM laws.
Third, they must tailor-make plans of action suitable for the particularly unique circumstances under which FGM is performed in each community.
For instance, if mass-mutilation in pockets of high risk areas during the holiday season is a recurring theme in a country, there should be a temporary increase in the number of police forces there.
Governments must work with civil society to conduct awareness-raising on the harmful effects of FGM and relevant laws through the use of community radio and local media.
An effective strategy could involve the creation of temporary shelters for girls fleeing FGM during the holidays and reaching out to schools to let girls know about such facilities.
Similarly, effective strategies to counter the medicalisation of FGM in some countries could involve police undercover operations to identify doctors and facilities that perform FGM.
All that activists are calling for from governments is compelling political will to protect every one of our girls from FGM.
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