Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Ambassador Cathy Russell, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
Last week, just before the world marked a day of zero tolerance for female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), UNICEF released a report that upended common knowledge on FGM/C. The organization now estimates two hundred million women and girls in thirty countries have undergone the practice—that’s seventy million more women and girls than estimated in 2014.
This news comes despite documented declines in FGM/C thanks to targeted efforts in high-prevalence countries. Over the past twenty years, FGM/C in Egypt decreased from ninety-seven percent prevalence to seventy percent. Burkina Faso, Kenya, Liberia, and Togo have seen similar notable decreases in the practice.
If FGM/C is on the decline in these countries, why has the overall number increased? Population growth in many countries where the practice takes place has added to the number of girls affected by FGM/C, as well as the number at risk. But the new research is shining a spotlight on countries—most notably Indonesia—where the prevalence of FGM/C was previously not well known.
UNICEF’s reporting also suggests that FGM/C may exist in regions as diverse as parts of South Asia, the Pacific, and the Western Hemisphere. Several countries in these regions are currently not on UNICEF’s list of the thirty countries where there is a known high prevalence of FGM/C.
UNICEF’s findings on FGM/C—which affects health, human rights, and empowerment—suggest that the epidemic may be more global in scale. As research continues to illuminate the scope of FGM/C, which is largely hidden from public scrutiny or discussion, we can expect to see more reports of higher numbers.
That is why it is critical that we all work to combat the practice. There is a growing number of individuals, organizations, and countries working to tackle this problem. The United States is proud to be one of them. Here are three ways we’re working on the international front to end FGM/C:
Preventing and responding to FGM/C is a part of U.S. foreign policy.
The U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, which President Obama launched in 2012, recognizes FGM/C as a form of gender-based violence. The strategy makes clear that FGM/C is a harmful practice that requires a multi-sector response—one that includes community-led responses, a change in social norms, and political commitment. The State Department is also set to launch a strategy to empower adolescent girls, which will include ending harmful practices—such as FGM/C—as a core objective.
We use diplomacy to speak out against FGM/C.
For this year’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM/C, President Obama released an historic statement speaking out against the practice. “Today, we stand with communities here and around the globe working to prevent FGM/C,” he said. It’s time to put an end to this harmful practice, and to allow communities everywhere to meet their full potential by enabling women and girls to meet theirs.”It wasn’t his first time talking about FGM/C—during a trip to Ethiopia and Kenya last year, he made clear that "there’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation”—but it was the first presidential statement marking the day.
The State Department also includes FGM/C in our annual Human Rights Reports. Each country report includes information on whether FGM/C is prevalent, the type and category of genital cutting most common, as well as an assessment of governmental efforts to address FGM/C through laws and other efforts.
We are testing community-based approaches to address the causes and consequences of FGM/C.
In 2014, the State Department invested $1.5 million in an innovative project in Guinea to tackle FGM/C. Led by the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, the campaign brought together the government of Guinea, local organizations, and community leaders to break the taboo around FGM/C.The campaign used awareness trainings, radio ads, billboards, events, a hotline, brochures and t-shirts, and support from highly influential community leaders to start conversations in places where there had been only silence around FGM/C. Within just a year, more than 265 villages in Guinea collectively and publically renounced FGM/C.
This is what’s possible when governments, civil society, and others work together to address this problem. But we can do more, which is why the State Department will be co-hosting this year’s annual donor working group meeting on FGM/C. This group is working to end FGM/C within a generation—a bold goal that inspires optimism and action.
UNICEF’s new report has proven that the goal line is farther than we’d hoped. But we can’t end FGM/C if we don’t know where it’s happening. This data paints a clearer picture of what it will take to truly end FGM/C and fully empower women and girls.