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MADRID, SPAIN – 2018/02/03: A woman with a placard that reads “200 million victims” protesting against female genital mutilation. Photo by Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • The death of a young girl within 24 hours of female genital mutilation (FGM) has led to a united call to end the practice from women’s groups worldwide.
  • Despite years of campaigning, the practice is still widespread.
  • A moderate decline in the practice is not enough to prevent a significant rise in women and girls undergoing the procedure due to population growth.
  • An estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM in over 30 countries.

The death of 21-year-old Maseray Sei from bleeding and shock the day after undergoing FGM in Sierra Leone has again shone the spotlight on the practice.

FGM, also known as cutting (FGM/C) involves any and all procedures involving the removal of external female genitalia or injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGMC/C is considered a form of violence against women and girls that violates their human rights. The African Union has condemned FGM/C as a harmful practice that affects the human rights of women in its Maputo Protocol in 2003.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes four different types of FGM/C:

  • Type 1 is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the surrounding fold of skin.
  • Type 2 is the removal of the clitoris, the surrounding fold of skin, and the inner folds of the vulva. This is done with or without removing the outer folds of the vulva.
  • Type 3 is the creation of a narrowing of the vaginal opening, also known as infibulation.
  • Type 4 includes piercing, incising, and all other harmful nonmedical procedures.

There has been an overall decline of FGM/C over the past 30 years, but not all countries have made equal progress. Figures published by Unicef show a reduction of FGM in girls aged 15 to 19 years living in Egypt from 97% in 1985 to 70% in 2015. Similar trends were noted around neighboring countries.

In Africa, Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of FGM — 83% of women and girls have undergone the practice.

Despite its moderate decline, according to Unicef:

“Current progress is insufficient to keep up with increasing population growth. If trends continue, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM/C will rise significantly over the next 15 years.”

The exact figures of women and girls who have undergone FGM/C worldwide are estimated to be at least 200 million in over 30 different countries, with an estimated 44 million under the age of 15.

FGM/C is more commonplace in Indonesia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, but it is practiced worldwide. There are an estimated 41,000 girls and women living with FGM/C in the Netherlands, and according to the CDC, as many as “half a million girls and women in the United States have undergone FGM/C in the past or may be at risk for undergoing FGM/C in the future.”

A mix of sociocultural reasons is thought to be behind the practice, which will vary depending on the country and region. In most places where FGM/C takes place it is excused as a cultural tradition, for reasons which can include:

  • The fear of community rejection and the social pressure to conform.
  • It may be viewed as a way to prepare a girl for adulthood and marriage.
  • To ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity — it can increase marriageability in certain cultures and countries.
  • It is associated with femininity, modesty, cleanliness, and beauty.

In many countries, the governments, authorities, and rulers have the ability to stop the practice but do not have the will. Indeed, in Sierra Leone, FGM is not prohibited, and despite existing protection laws for women and girls, there have been no known FGM-related prosecutions. In fact, there have been recent reports of a member of parliament in Sierra Leone paying for 150 girls to undergo FGM.

No health benefits, only harm”

There are no health benefits associated with FGM/C, rather the removal of healthy tissue gives rise to lifelong complications.

Immediate complications associated with FGM include severe bleeding and hemorrhage, fever, infections, shock, and death.

Longer-term, life-altering complications can include; pain urinating, urinary tract infections, painful periods, difficulty passing menstrual blood, sexual problems through to childbirth complications and newborn deaths, the need for repeated surgery, and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Equality Now, an international human rights organization that focuses on changing the law to protect and promote the rights of women and girls globally is calling for the criminalization of FGM, and more specifically for the government of Sierra Leone “to enact and enforce a comprehensive anti-FGM law to guarantee the protection of its women and girls.”

According to Asenath Mwithigah, the End Harmful Practices global lead at Equality Now, “130 women rights groups around the world have signed the @equalitynow open letter” to date.

With direct reference to Maseray Sei, Asenath Mwithigah has called on the government of Sierra Leone “to honor its commitment to eliminate FGM in line with ‘Pillar 8 on Gender and Women’s Empowerment’ in its agenda for prosperity and obligations in line with CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol.”

“We further demand a comprehensive and swift police investigation and prosecution of all those responsible for the tragic death of this young woman. It is vital that justice is served so that it can be a deterrent to others.”

Asenath Mwithigah

At the recent “Investing in strategic partnerships and grassroots actors to end FGM” meeting, held on the February 10, 2022, she went on to say: “We need strong, bold innovations to promote the agency of women and girls who are affected and at risk of FGM.”

She explains, “Today, our mutual goal to #EndFGM and partnership are more than ever necessary, and our efforts must be reinforced.”

The Speaker of Parliament, Rt Hon. Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu, has responded that he shares the concerns about FGM and that “FGM be outlawed.” He says, “good traditions needed to be preserved while discarding bad ones.”

Furthermore, he has agreed to present the letter to parliament on behalf of anti-FGM campaigners.