In many cultures across the globe, female genital mutilation – or FGM – has long been practiced as a rite of passage marking the transition of girls to womanhood. It is often considered a necessary steppingstone to marriage and motherhood.
On the contrary, FGM is now increasingly understood to be a painful, unnecessary tradition without medical benefits. Its harmful effects can last a lifetime.
Around the world, up to 200 million women have undergone FGM—that’s roughly 5% of the world’s women. The majority go through it before puberty; some are only a few days old. FGM complications can be emotional, psychological or physical; they range from infections to lifelong urinary problems, infertility, life threatening complications during childbirth and even death.
No wonder, then, that every year more people add their voices to the growing campaigns calling for an end to the practice.
In countries where FGM is practiced, the number of women who have called for its end has doubled in the last decade. Opposition to FGM is growing increasingly quickly among adolescent girls. However, because it a practice often cultivated by women, the number of teenage boys opposing FGM can sometimes outweigh the number of girls doing the same.
This shift in attitudes has not occurred by itself. It is the product of diligent work done over decades by people across countries and across sectors. Community leaders, teachers, government officials, civil society organizations, tribal leaders, elders, young people, academics, and local and international experts have been involved. Increasingly, women and girls are themselves speaking out.
Changing social norms that underlie traditional practices is usually a slow, painstaking process. Usually, the goal is to change attitudes narrative through new information and stories. In doing so, we can curb risky behaviors that harm others and slowly create permanent changes in community value systems. The idea is to encourage people to voluntarily stop—and eventually outlaw—the very custom they once promoted.
None of this is easy. And it’s not quick. It takes sustained work over a long period of time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations and World Health Organization both said that the progress we were making needed to go 10x faster in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of reaching gender equality.
And then the pandemic hit, putting even the progress we’ve already made at risk.
Climate change was already working against us, and now the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges. Both have caused increased financial hardships and destroyed livelihoods. This, in turn, leads to severe financial struggles within communities who did not have a solid financial foundation to start with.
For the first time in many years, experts predict an increase, rather than decrease, in FGM. Cash strapped and increasingly desperate families are now returning to traditional practices such as child marriage and FGM in order to survive.
The CWS team in Kenya has seen examples of this painful reversal. Girls as young as 9 years old are being married off to much older men. They are forced to drop out of school and work on their new husbands’ farms. Girls are also being taken out of school because their families are too far into poverty to pay their fees or buy supplies.
Desperate parents who can no longer afford to feed all of their children are turning to child marriage as a last resort. And because FGM is traditionally considered the rite of passage for a girl to become a woman, it increases when child marriage does.
As we search for technical and medical solutions for COVID-19 and climate change, it is important for us to remember the people. Real people, real families, real girls…they are at risk. As desperation grows and families make gut-wrenching decisions, we will have to work even faster. This will take urgent attention and scaled up resources. Our girls can’t wait.
Mary Obiero is the Director of CWS’s Relief, Development and Protection team in Africa. Jasmine Huggins is the CWS Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer.