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Let’s work together to end FGM

OPINION
By Ademola Olajide and Maniza Zaman | February 6th 2021

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Anti-FGM Board Bernadette Resian Loloju.

Female genital mutilation or FGM, is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights. Yet, over 200 million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing this harmful practice annually, many under the age of 15. Many factors contribute to prevalence of FGM but in every society in which it occurs, it is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality.

In Kenya around 4 million or one in five women and girls have been subjected to FGM. In some communities, this rises as high as 94 percent. Although these numbers have declined in recent years, they remain high. And we note the gains can be precarious – when schools closed last year in response to Covid-19, we saw an increase in cases of FGM, child marriage and sexual violence. An estimated 574,000 additional Kenyan girls are at risk between now and 2030 unless urgent action is taken. Thankfully, tackling FGM is a national priority in Kenya, with an action plan to end the practice by 2022.

In cultures where FGM is entrenched in tradition and social norms, it takes courage to speak up against it. And yet every day, survivors of FGM like Aisha Hussein, 26, are calling for an end to the practice. Aisha knows first-hand, the long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of FGM, and the danger it poses to current and future generation of girls and women. It is time to listen and act fast in addressing structures, and harmful gender norms that perpetuate the vice. We have less than two years.

So what will it take?

Because FGM is rooted in gender inequality and power imbalances, fighting it requires changing the cultural and social norms that increase the risk of harm to women. This means addressing all other forms of violence and harmful practices such as child marriage, as well as physical, sexual and psychological violence.

Religious leaders, elders, and other cultural gatekeepers hold the key to abandoning FGM by entire communities. They can make public statements delinking FGM from religious teachings and ethnic culture. Decrees from the Borana Council of Elders, Pokot elders, the Tana Delta elders, the Loita Maasai elders and others have outlawed the practice, paving way for alternative rites of passage that honour the rights and well-being of women and girls. Religious and cultural leaders signed a commitment to support government efforts in ending FGM, during a meeting at State House Nairobi.

A structured government response puts the country ahead of its neighbours in the fight against FGM. The collection of more reliable and accurate data and tight coordination among the various actors remains paramount. This requires sustainable domestic funding and prevention programmes, through national budget lines, county budget lines and from the private sector.

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Within the 22 counties with high prevalence of FGM, worrying trends are emerging, such as medicalisation of the vice, girls cutting themselves, increased cross-border FGM, cutting of married women and cutting of younger girls and infants. Establishing strong community surveillance mechanisms is crucial to ensuring protection of at-risk girls and women, while collaboration between community leaders and law enforcement officers can help curb these emerging trends.

Through the Joint Programme on Ending FGM, UNFPA and UNICEF are providing financial and technical support to the Ministry of Public Service and Gender to help implement the Presidential Costed Action Plan to End FGM in Kenya by 2022. We also help provide girls and women with access to suitable care, while mobilising communities to transform the social norms that uphold the practice. As we mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, let us unite and act together to achieve the goal of an FGM-free Kenya. This is not just another cause – it is about a gross violation of human rights, and one which we can completely stop.

-Dr Olajide is UNFPA Representative while Ms Zaman is UNICEF Representative

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