Today, on the Ninth Annual International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, we stand in solidarity with men and women who are working to address and prevent this practice that takes place in many countries around the world. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) occurs across cultures and religions, although no religion mandates the procedure. It is a practice rooted in beliefs about the “dangers” of women's sexuality, and involves a rite of passage into adulthood that has extremely detrimental consequences on the health and overall well-being of women and girls subjected to it.
It is estimated that 100 to 140 million women globally have undergone this procedure and three million girls are at risk every year. Cutting is often performed by untrained practitioners, employing no anesthesia and often using such instruments as broken glass, tin lids, scissors, or unsterilized razors. In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the procedure carries with it severe short and long-term health risks: including hemorrhaging; infection, including increased risk of HIV transmission; birth complications; and even death. Remarkably, some people still defend this practice as part of a cultural or religious tradition. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed, violence toward women and girls isn't cultural -- it's criminal.
The United States has supported efforts to abandon this egregious practice since the early 1990s, and considers it not only a public health issue, but a violation of women's rights and dignity. Here are a few examples of our advocacy and funding:
The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) addresses prevention of female genital mutilation and cutting in humanitarian settings and works to raise awareness of the need to reduce the practice of gender-based violence and FGM/C. PRM also supports some targeted activities to prevent female genital mutilation/cutting in Somali and Sudanese refugee populations. For example, in Kenya, we provide resources to NGO partners to promote awareness and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting by supporting community based organizations including men's groups, youth groups, women's groups, and religious leaders. Other projects promote social and economic empowerment of women and girls to reduce the risk of exposure to gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation/cutting, while educating participants on the impact of harmful traditional practices.
In northern Ethiopia, PRM supports an awareness-raising program for women and girls living in Shimelba and My'Ayni refugee camps, including through discussions with girls, women, boys, and men on gender based violence-related topics -- including female genital mutilation/cutting -- and a Girls' Wellness Week, which promotes adolescent girls' health through a coming-of-age ceremony that does not include the procedure.
In Egypt, the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues provides support to an organization working to address and prevent violence against women, including female genital mutilation/cutting, in select Cairo communities. The project provides training and capacity building for survivor advocacy and mental health training for health care providers, community leaders and volunteers. The Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor are also funding an NGO working in northern Iraq to support a multidimensional program composed of integrated victim services and a successful educational campaign for village residents and political and religious leaders that has led to the first of its kind declaration of a village being "Female Genital Mutilation Free" in Iraq.
USAID has supported similar projects in many countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, among others. All projects addressing female genital mutilation/cutting supported by USAID are culturally sensitive and are integrated with health, economic, social, or democracy and governance programs. USAID programs are community-based, involving work with community and religious leaders as well as women's groups, men, and youth to advance the quality and effectiveness of our efforts and to improve conditions that will lead to abandonment of the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting.
Among the best-known programs are those carried out by the NGO Tostan, which made the case that the procedure was detrimental to the health of the future mothers of Senegal and was able to convince tribal and religious leaders to join its cause. Tostan understood that community based approaches involving men, boys, religious leaders, and all members of society are the only way to achieve lasting support against mutilation. In fact, community advocates have found that when men come to understand the physical and psychological trauma FGM/C causes, they often become the most effective activists for eradication, including fathers that unequivocally refuse to allow their daughters to be subjected to the procedure. Communities must act collectively to abandon the practice, so that girls or their families who opt out do not jeopardize marriage prospects or become social outcasts. We are encouraged to see that this approach has led some 6,000 communities across Africa to abandon the practice, usually through some form of public declaration. In the past, the Egyptian Ministry of Women and Children worked to organize renunciation ceremonies in which entire communities agreed not to continue the procedure in the interest of the good health of the women and girls in the community.
We hope that the support of governments and international donors -- along with the many men and women around the world who denounce this practice -- will overturn deeply entrenched social norms that are not only harmful to women and girls, but to our communities and societies.