Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises of procedures that involve the partial or total removal of female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural reasons and other non-medical reasons. FGM must be thought of as a sensitive practice that is embedded within complex sociocultural systems dating back over 2000 years.
It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. FGM and other forms has been documented in 30 countries, primarily in Africa, Middle East, South America and Asia. These procedures can result in death, Infertility, infibulations, defibulation, overwhelming infections and trauma.
UNICEF estimates that each year more than 3 million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing FGM with most girls cut before the age of 15. Traditionally, ethnic communities state that FGM was practiced for the preservation of the cultural identity of the group, to mark women different social status, for the preservation of women’s chastity and marriageability, for hygiene and beauty, for the promotion of fertility and to promote the community’s religious identity.
Despite FGM being outlawed by most countries and the United Nations General Assembly adoption of a worldwide ban of FGM . FGM is still practiced in various communities across different continents. FGM is recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women in various International treaties. Furthermore, the practice violates a series of well-established human rights principles, norms and standards. This includes principles of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, the right to life and the right to freedom from torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment as well as the right to a person’s highest attainable standard of health.
Female Genital Mutilation and Gender Inequality.
Female genital mutilation has been recognized as discrimination based on sex, at its core the practice is built upon and furthers gender inequality and power imbalances between men and women. FGM inhibits women’s full and equal enjoyment of their human rights. It is a form of violence against girls and women, with physical and psychological consequences. FGM deprives girls and women from making an independent decision about an intervention that has a lasting effect on their bodies and infringes on their autonomy and control over their lives.
FGM reflects the worst forms of inequality between the two sexes. The practice impedes upon women’s equal access to political and socio-economic power in society. FGM, as it is a harmful practice has long-term effects on the health of women. This ends the schooling of girls preventing them from accessing opportunities their education would provide. This leads women to early marriage further perpetrates poverty and inequality.
Female Genital Mutilation and Poverty
In communities where FGM is practised, various studies have indicated that there is an inextricable link to low levels of economic development. When expounded this deeply rooted in political social and economic inequality between women and men.
The fight against FGM has been dealt with on two fronts empowerment and education. Educations calls for advocacy and community education projects, this is closer interaction between policy makers at all levels and the grassroots to society’s opinion leaders. Education focusses on challenging the discriminatory reasons FGM is practised. Education also calls for the changing of harmful cultural traditions that perpetrate violence against women, educating women and girls on their right to decide what happens to their body, running campaigns on the risks and realities of FGM, dealing with the intersection between religion and FGM which includes addressing the narratives and misconceptions, tackling the secrecy that allows FGM to continue and in countries where FGM has not been banned advocating for the ban of FGM. This is seen in initiatives such as End violence against women, ENDFGM, end fgm, Zero tolerance Against FGM, 28 Too Many, End FGM Network
FGM has also been tackled from the perspective of gender inequality and empowerment programmes that enable women’s access to finance and education. Gender Equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable community.
The cost of FGM
FGM has a cost and constitutes an obstacle to education of girls. In some regions in Africa, FGM is part of an initiation ritual that continues over a period of months. Hence, during this time girls go to school late or not at all. After this interval, they have trouble catching up with the rest of the class. Furthermore, many girls suffer from health problems, pain and trauma following the FGM procedure. There are indications that girls enrolled in school are often absent or less attentive in class for these reasons. This leads to poor performance, interruptions and premature termination of schooling. Consequently, girls who are excluded from (basic) education suffer a number of disadvantages such as the denied opportunities accruing from the acquisition of knowledge – for instance, about health, nutrition or legal rights.
While a ‘cut’ girl is marriageable and can offer an economic return to her family, an ‘uncut’ girl may be seen as unclean, unmarriageable, and even a non-adult. This can result in families failing to receive bride wealth, as well as being ostracized from their community. High celebration expenses impose further pressure on the family to marry off a girl early, and as a consequence it may entail early pregnancies for her. Some studies and research have explored possible links between early marriage and FGM; and it is possible that by reducing early marriage rates FGM rates will also decrease. (Source: https://www. endfgm.eu/content /documents/ AddressingFGMmanual-Book-Digital-19May-1.pdf )
Not only does FGM have social and economic cost to the victims of FGM but also to the women employed to do the excision.
“Ending Female Genital Mutilation is possible, but first we have to create an optimal means of survival for those who already consider initiation as employment,” said Fatmata Koroma, Sowei leader and community chief from the Tonkolili district Sierra Leone. (Source: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/11/feature-sierra-leone-fgm)
The excisors (women performing the cutting) have laid down their tools and undergone income generation programmes so that they can stop the cutting and have alternative means of livelihood.
Women’s Access to finance as a solution
Women in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is widely practised disproportionately face financial access barriers that prevent them from participating in the economy and improving their lives as well as that of their family.
Women entrepreneurs face significantly greater challenges than men in gaining access to financial services. In developing economies, women are 20% less likely than men to have formal bank accounts 17% less likely than men to have a formal financial loan.
Access to credit has the potential to open up economic opportunities for women. Women’s economic empowerment is central to realizing women’s rights and gender equality. This includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.
Empowering women in the economy is key to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Particularly Goal 5, to achieve gender equality, and Goal 8, to promote full and productive employment and decent work for all; also Goal 1 on ending poverty, Goal 2 on food security, Goal 3 on ensuring health and Goal 10 on reducing inequalities.(https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/economic-empowerment/facts-and-figures )
FGM is inextricably linked with ending extreme poverty; girls who experience it are more likely to be forced into child marriage, more likely to be poor and stay poor, and less likely to be educated. Financial inclusion can be used as one of the means to empower women economically. (https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/be-generation-ends-fgm)
Financial inclusion is defined as providing the poor with access to affordable, sustainable, and quality financial products and services. It is broadly recognized as a critical pathway for reducing poverty and generating economic development. Often, the argument is made that financial inclusion is a key enabler for women’s empowerment. (https://www.idrc. ca/en/research-in-action/transforming-gender-relations-achieve-financial-inclusion)
Victims of FGM are in a vulnerable position economically. Often, many of them cannot participate in the wider economy and thus improve their standards of living. Financial inclusion for women provides for a stepping-stone into the economy. Consequently improving their decision making power in the household. Notably, women’s financial inclusion saw especially significant gains with the number of accounts rising by 600 percent in Senegal and doubling in more established markets like Kenya, bringing Kenyan women’s inclusion close to 80 percent. Recent research in Niger showed that women who received government subsidies through mobile money instead of cash had greater power in household decision-making. Similarly, research in Kenya has shown that women-headed households that adopted mobile money saw an increase in savings. (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/07/24/figure-of-the-week-increasing-financial-inclusion-for-women-in-africa/)
In the last decade through significant efforts by communities, governments and civil society, FGM has declined by 30 % worldwide. There is no denying that gender inequality and poverty is significant in the perpetration of FGM. The solution to eradicating FGM lies in dealing with the underlying causes. The fight against FGM is being fought on multiple fronts. As stated earlier, women empowerment and education programmes at the grassroots levels continue to aid in this fight. Advocacy and community education programmes that seek to educate the community on the danger of this practice remain crucial. Women’s access to finance can be instrumental as one of the tools to combat this harmful practice. There is an age-old saying in Africa; if you empower a woman, you empower a village.