FGM Violates Human Rights. What’s Being Done About it?
Students at the Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO) secondary school in Tanzania are pursuing their dreams to become business people, doctors, lawyers and historians. For these girls, school means access to quality learning materials and female role models. But school is also a safe haven from child marriage and its ugly bedfellow, female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C).
FGM violates women’s and girls’ human rights. The practice perpetuates and reinforces gender inequalities by controlling women’s bodies and sexuality. Some say it goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yet FGM continues to impact girls and women today with all of the negative consequences for health (not to mention self-esteem) that go with it.
Now a student at MWEDO secondary school, 16-year-old Malaika Lehoo Laizer says that as her family could no longer afford to keep her in school, they forced her to marry – but not before undergoing FGM to preserve the family’s honour.
“I saw my education dream suffering a major blow and had no choice but to stay at home and wait for fate to take its own course,” she says. “While I was waiting for another chance to return to school, my uncle forced me to get married to an elderly man who promised to give two cows to my grandmother and one to my uncle.”
Luckily, Malaika escaped and an aunt helped her get a scholarship to the MWEDO Girls Secondary School.
FMG most prevalent where education least available
While it’s unclear exactly how many women have undergone FGM, UNICEF estimates that it affects 200 million women in 30 countries. In 12 countries, more than half of all women have been subjected to the procedure and, in some like Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, FGM is virtually universal.
If more is not done to counter the customs and norms that perpetuate this practice, population growth means that 4.6 million girls a year could face the cut by 2030, up from 3 million today.
In Tanzania, 10% of girls and women aged 15-49 have been circumcised. However, the total percentage varies by region, wealth and education with, as you can guess, the poorest and the least educated most at risk. In fact, almost one in five of the poorest women in Tanzania are subjected to FGM, which generally occurs when a girl hits puberty. In comparison, the practice impacts 4% of the wealthiest women. In some regions of the country, up to 80% of women and girls have had FGM.
On the international stage, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF banded together in 1997 to condemn the practice. And, following joint statements in 2007 and 2008, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2012 to end all forms of FGM. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda approved in 2015 created additional political pressure to move forward on ending FGM by 2030.
It will take local, community-based human rights education to protect the most vulnerable girls
The good news is that UNICEF surveys reveal that two-thirds of people in regions where FGM occurs think it should stop. In Tanzania, 95% of women and girls and 89% of men and boys want to end the practice, though people with less education are more likely to want to carry on with the way things have always been done. The growing antipathy to FGM is reflected in the fact that younger teens are being subjected to cutting at much lower rates than were women who are now in their forties.
Ultimately, all children must have access to at least 12 years of free, quality education to fully insulate girls and women from this violation and to ensure that their human rights and dignity are respected by their families and their communities.
Malaika says that she wants “to become a doctor so I can help people in my community especially women and to be role model to other young girls who thought they could not fulfill their dreams.”
Way to go Malaika! We are with you all the way.