Lessons from Africa: Tackling FGM

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a problem the world over. While researching and writing a paper on the subject, our colleague Nell discovered a number of things that we here in the UK can learn from the success experienced tackling FGM in the developing world.


By Nell Williams, Marketing Communications Officer, World Vision UK

“How can you have problems like that, with all your wealth in the UK?”

That’s what I was asked by an Ethiopian Police Officer when I explained that we are yet to prosecute a single case of FGM here in the UK. He was genuinely amazed, and I didn’t have an easy answer for him.

I was in Ethiopia researching the links between child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) which is defined as the cutting of female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It’s done because of social, cultural or religious beliefs, and it happens all over the world, including to girls born and living right here in the UK.

FGM causes unimaginable suffering for girls. After the immediate risk of bleeding and infection, many face a lifetime of pain: reproductive health problems, incontinence and psychological trauma.

Changing attitudes

You might wonder how anyone could subject a girl to that kind of suffering. The reality is, in many cultures, being ‘cut’ is seen as an important passage into womanhood. It’s believed to keep girls sexually pure and ensure they make a good marriage. It’s supposed to make them mild mannered and obedient. It’s even believed to have positive health benefits in some cases.

FGM_profile.jpgParents I met in Ethiopia said things like this:

“Being cut disciplines a girls’ mind . . . so she is more in control”

“If she is not cut, she will break all the pots in the kitchen”

“Uncut girls have hot tempers”

“Being uncut is a sign of disobedience. How can she obey her husband if she can’t do that thing?”

Imagine if it’s all you’ve ever known, and what everybody does. What happened to you and your mother, and your grandmother before that.

Parents worry how their girls will get married if they don’t follow the norm.  One mother I met in Ethiopia told me “It’s hard for uncut girls to get married, and then they feel bad, so what are we supposed to do?”

Even as health knowledge increases, attitudinal change can be slow. Health messages must compete with these myths that have been passed down generations, and have real meaning for communities. Parents can feel torn between their knowledge of the risks, and community expectations. Above all, they wish health and happiness for their girls; they want them to be safe, but also to have good reputations and make good marriages.

The UK issue

FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985. Yet it’s estimated that 24 000 girls under 15 are at risk. Not one single case of FGM has been prosecuted in the UK to date. I told that to one of the public prosecutors in Ethiopia, and that’s what he couldn’t believe; that’s when he asked “How can you have problems like that, with all your wealth in the UK?”

In Ethiopia, resource is a big issue. The police I met described times when cases have been reported to them, but they have lacked even the transport to investigate them.  They imagined that here in the UK, we’d easily be able to identify and prosecute cases of FGM.

FGM_family.jpgBut it’s not that simple. The first step is even getting cases reported. Where FGM is socially accepted, people are reluctant to report it, even if they know it’s illegal. Since it’s normally arranged within families, people are – of course – reluctant to report their own families to the police.

That’s why, in Ethiopia, the police are pro-active. They have dedicated child protection officers who spend time in the community, building relationships, looking for the signs. They work with faith leaders, schools, health workers. They build a network to look out for and protect girls at risk of FGM.

At the same time, they can help challenge the root attitudes that drive the practice. Faith leaders, community leaders, teachers and other parents are all best placed to challenge the myths and the harmful norms that endorse it.

Change is slow but steady and many leaders, parents, even whole communities, are abandoning FGM. In Ethiopia, the rate of FGM among women aged 15-49 reduced from 73% to 57% over ten years (1997-2007), thanks to all these factors.

Lessons like these from Ethiopia – and other African countries- bring fresh hope to us here in the UK, with real results we can aspire to, until every girl is free from FGM.

Read the briefing paper here (right click to download).

Support the Department for International Development's Thunderclap on Twitter or Facebook for International Day of Zero Tolerance Against FGM.


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