By Ruth Njeng’ere
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a global outrage, which has already affected 100-140 million women and girls worldwide. Since 1992, Equality Now has been working to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls. Eliminating FGM globally is one of our key priorities. Although progress has been slow at times, recent developments such as the UN Global Ban, strengthens our ongoing struggle for lasting change.
Equality Now has been heartened by recent success in the US, with the passing of the ‘Girls Protection Act’. 168,000 girls and women living in the United States have already undergone, or are at risk of undergoing FGM. This legislation seeks to close a loophole, which previously made it possible for girls to be taken abroad to undergo it there. Meanwhile, in the UK, where it is estimated that 66,000 women and girls have undergone, and 24,000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk of undergoing FGM, Equality Now continued as secretariat for the second year running for the FGM All-Party-Parliamentary-Group. We were also directly involved with the introduction of a new ‘Health Passport‘ – a statement opposing FGM, signed by a number of members of parliament including the Minister of State for Crime Prevention, as well as an ‘Action Plan’ on how to remove the barriers to prosecution of FGM crime in the UK. We continue to provide advisory and technical support through the FGM Special Initiative, which seeks to strengthen community-based prevention work on FGM. In early January, the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the oldest and the most recognised civil society organisation dealing with the welfare of children in the UK, finally decided to specifically include FGM within its existing child protection work.
We are encouraged too by recent positive developments in Africa. In the Gambia, where 78.3 percent of women have undergone FGM, a national consultative meeting geared towards introducing a bill banning FGM began this month. In attendance were traditional and village leaders, as well as several women’s rights activists. In a statement, long-term Equality Now Partner and leading anti-FGM activist Dr. Isatou Touray lauded the move, suggesting that it was a manifestation of commitment to the advancement of Gambian women and girls against harmful traditional practices. In Somalia where the prevalence of FGM is almost universal (98 %) and where religious conservatives push for some form of FGM, it is heartening to know that the new Somali constitution includes a ban on all forms of “female circumcision”.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, progress in the anti-FGM campaign, measured by the reduction of the national FGM prevalence rates from 38% (1998) to 27% (2008), is linked to increased awareness efforts by civil society organisations and the implementation of the law on FGM, which was contained in the Children’s Act passed in 2001. Legal precedents have been set by the Kenyan Courts, preventing parents from forcing their daughters to undergo FGM. A specific law against the practice came into force in 2011, whereby Kenya joined neighbouring Uganda in having an extra-territoriality clause. This closes the loophole, which previously permitted parents to take girls outside of Kenya to undergo FGM. The 2011 law also seeks to prosecute practitioners, procurers, traffickers of (potential) victims, anyone providing premises for practitioners, possession of tools, as well as failure to report a known incident. It prescribes life imprisonment if the exercise leads to the death of a victim of FGM. Kenya’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development has been given the task of coordinating the implementation activities of the FGM Prohibition Act through a board that has yet to be constituted.
In an effort to support the implementation of a new constitution that also bans harmful traditional practices, grassroots efforts continue to focus on changing the mindset of practicing communities. One such initiative is the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI), funded and supported by Equality Now. TNI was instrumental in the conviction of the father of 12-year-old Sasiano Nchoe and her circumciser. Sasiano bled to death following FGM. This unprecedented court ruling that took place in 2010, based on the Children’s Act of 2001, was facilitated by Equality Now’s Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund with the help of TNI.
TNI provides a haven for Maasai girls who have been alienated due to their rejection of FGM and forced into early marriage. It provides food and accommodation while enabling the girls to pursue their education. It also reaches out to the Maasai community, educating them about the harmful effects of FGM and encourages them to adopt alternative rites of passage for young girls, which do not include the cut and are not harmful. Equality Now is also supporting efforts by the organisation to encourage the re-integration of the girls into their communities. This often involves convincing the girls’ parents that they and those around them stand to gain from the education the girls pursue. The recent Kenya demographic and health survey indicates a decline in the prevalence of FGM among the Maasai from 93% (2003) to 73% (2008).
The global effort to eliminate FGM also took a major step forward last year at the United Nations General Assembly, where a Group of African States presented a draft resolution to intensify global efforts. No Peace without Justice, which steered this effort, and involved African governments should be commended for their leadership on this issue.
Meanwhile, our award-winning film ‘Africa Rising’, which highlights the growing grassroots movement, committed to ending FGM across Africa, has been screened around the globe. Travelling through remote villages in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Somalia and Tanzania, the film shows the ongoing efforts by African women activists in eliminating FGM against all odds.
In Burkina Faso, where the law is applied alongside public education, there has been a dramatic reduction of FGM prevalence between women (74%) and their daughters (25%) with only 14.2% of women surveyed in that country wanting the practice to continue. This illustrates what success is possible if a government addresses the issue seriously and comprehensively. Despite recent successes on the African continent, huge challenges continue to exist.
In Liberia, although President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has pledged to make the elimination of FGM a government priority, FGM is still legal and we are not aware of any immediate plans to change this. Over 58% of women have already undergone FGM in Liberia, while the powerful Sande secret society continues to carry it out on young girls with impunity. As is the case in Sierra Leone, FGM is a “vote-catcher” and governments avoid asserting their authority when it comes to traditional power structures such as the Sande society. Our work in Liberia has been two-fold. We have been supporting local partners in their efforts to gain justice for Ruth Berry Peal, who was kidnapped and forcibly subjected to FGM by the Sande society. More recently, we have also been concerned about the well-being of journalist Mae Azango, who was forced into hiding after publishing a story on FGM. Once again, members of the Sande society have threatened to forcibly subject her to FGM. It is hoped that President Sirleaf will do more to help women like Ruth and Mae, as well as the countless other women and girls who are at risk of undergoing FGM in Liberia.
Recent progress illustrates that although we continue to face challenges in our drive to eliminate FGM in Africa and globally, the movement is gathering pace. At this crucial point, we call on Liberia, Indonesia and all countries where the FGM is legal, to enact a law which prohibits the practice as a matter of urgency.
A world without FGM is in sight, but we now need to redouble our efforts to ensure that worldwide legislative change takes place, but also that educational efforts, which inform both practicing communities – and the general public about the harm FGM does to girls – are drastically increased. In focusing on these two areas, we can ensure that that the next generation of girls is safeguarded from this and destructive and entirely unnecessary practice.
Ruth Njeng’ere works with Equality Now.