How African women are winning fight vs. female circumcision

September 5, 2007 

This summer, two young girls died in Egypt — one age 13, the other just 12 — as a result of female genital cutting. Globally, thousands more girls are presumed to have died in silence over the years from a practice that has no basis in any religion and is not condoned by any government. About 3 million girls are cut each year, and an estimated 130 million women have undergone the procedure.

In Egypt, the public outcry that followed the deaths of the two girls has added momentum to efforts to abandon female genital cutting. The practice has been outlawed in the country, religious leaders are speaking out against it and nongovernment organizations and government officials are joining forces to make sure it ends.

But more needs to be done around the world to end this traditional practice. While it is believed to enhance a girl’s chastity and her chances of marriage by controlling her sexuality, it is excruciatingly painful and can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility, complications during childbirth, the spread of HIV and AIDS and — as happened in Egypt this summer — death.

It is one of many harmful practices that have their roots in discrimination. Women and girls, seen as custodians of family honor, are deemed “guilty” if that honor is threatened. Some become victims of honor crimes — such as disfiguring acid attacks and even murder. Others find themselves the target in vicious disputes between families over dowry payments.

Child marriage, still practiced in some parts of the world, is another destructive practice. Child brides — some as young as 12 when they marry — are less able to protect themselves against HIV, are more likely to be victims of violence and may have to bear children when their bodies are simply not ready to do so.

An organization in Senegal called Tostan has been successfully helping communities abandon harmful practices. This month, In September, this African nongovernmental organization is being honored with the prestigious Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its important work in empowering women and communities in Africa to transform their lives.

Tostan works with communities in local languages to help provide women with a voice in decision-making. This approach has been put into practice in hundreds of Senegalese villages — with great success.

Today, nearly a third of the 5,000 communities in Senegal have abandoned female genital cutting and many have moved away from child marriage. When I visited the program last year, women told me that they were now able to constructively participate in community affairs for the first time in their lives.

But more needs to be done to respond to the silent suffering of millions of girls around the world. By learning from Tostan’s successes and by including community-based approaches in the collective response to these damaging actions, female genital cutting and other harmful practices that subjugate young girls must be consigned to history.

Ann M. Veneman, a Modesto native, is executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. She previously served as director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and from 2001 to 2004, she served as the nation’s first female secretary of agriculture.

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