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Momentum gathering against FGM/C in Africa

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Liz Draper
WVoN co-editor 

Thousands of communities across Africa have abandoned the practice of female circumcision, according to an announcement by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF.

The announcment marked the International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting on February 6.

FGM/C, in which all or part of the external genitals are removed, is widespread across much of Africa and parts of the Middle East.

Although the UN has opposed FGM/C since the 1950s, because of the severe pain and long term health problems it causes, progress towards eradication has been slow due to the cultural perceptions surrounding the practice.

It is often considered a rite of passage ensuring chastity and marriageability, and girls who have not been “cut” are ostracised and considered too unclean to handle food and water.

However, in recent years, community-led programmes have led to thousands of African villages publicly abandoning the practice.

Writing in the Guardian last week, soul singer and human rights activist Sister Fa described the success of one such programme in her home village of Thionck Essyl in the West African country of Senegal.

According to Fa, the “old ways” of approaching FGM/C, which involve asking village elders to influence change in their communities, do not work because they “sideline young people”.

However, through a basic education programme run by development NGO Tostan, members of the community were able to learn about their human rights to health and freedom from violence, leading to a collective decision to abandon FGM/C.

Tostan’s programme is run in eight countries in West and Eastern Africa, and has led to 5000 communities making a similar decision to stop the practice. According to the UNFPA and UNESCO statement, FGM/C has declined by 65 per cent in Senegal.

Although three million girls worldwide continue to be at risk of FGM/C, the International Day Against FGM/C aims to promote the goal of ending the practice within a generation.

As Sister Fa points out, “foot binding in China ended in 20 years – why can’t FGM/C end the same way?”

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