February 6 marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is a harmful practice involving the cutting or removal of the external female genitalia. It does not have any health benefits but rather causes serious risks to women’s physical and psychological health. Last year, Sudan (where the most severe type of FGM is performed) criminalized FGM. However, ending this practice, which is one of the SDG targets, is still a major global challenge.
The UNICEF estimates at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM in the world. FGM has been practiced mainly in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa and some countries in the Middle East and Asia. According to household surveys in 28 countries, more than 80% of women ages 15-49 have undergone FGM in seven African countries (Guinea, Djibouti, Mali, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Sierra Leone). FGM is also found in western countries such as United Kingdom, United States, and Canada.
While the data shows high prevalence in some countries, women often do not support the practice of FGM, which appears deeply rooted in cultural and social norms. In 21 out of 28 countries with data, more than half of women think the practice should end. Women living where FGM prevalence is high are more likely to support the continuation of FGM. However, in Eritrea and Burkina Faso, more than 80% of women oppose this.
The COVID-19 pandemic brings more challenges to the efforts of ending FGM. According to the UNFPA and UNICEF, more FGM cases appear to have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid assessment report by the UNFPA and UNICEF for Somalia indicates that 31% of community members think there has been an increase in female genital mutilation cases compared to the pre-COVID-19 period. Another report suggests that adolescent girls are at risk as they are cut off from their peer social networks and mentors due to school closures.
FGM is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, as well as a violation of women’s rights to health, security, and physical integrity. Eliminating the practice of FGM by 2030 appears difficult. Particularly, due to COVID-19, an additional 2 million girls are projected to be at risk of undergoing FGM over the next decade, according to the UNFPA. Global, national, and local efforts to end FGM should continue to be promoted.