The International View


The World Health Organization estimates that 100 to 140 million women have been subjected to female genital mutilation, with about 3 million girls and women ritually cut every year. One account states that FGM is believed to have originated more than 2,000 years ago in Egypt or the Horn of Africa.


WHO has been at the forefront of advocacy for women in cultures that practice “female genital mutilation,” the term that the international organization has chosen over all others in order to express the severity and disabling effects of the custom. That wording was consequently adopted by the United Nations.


The custom persists primarily in Africa, where FGM is said to be performed in about 25 countries in the central part of the continent. All but two out of every 100 women are subjected to ritual cutting in Dijibouti and Somalia, according to WHO. In Mali, about 93 percent of females have their genitalia altered.


FGM is practiced in the Middle East and in small communities in Asia as well. Typically, a local village practitioner, lay person or midwife performs the ritual, often using knives, razor blades, scissors or broken glass, according to theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics.


In 1997, WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the UN Population Fund issued a statement against FGM, and it is deemed a violation of human rights under international law. In 2005, the Maputo Protocol—established by the African Union—took effect, granting equal status to women and men, guaranteeing reproductive rights and seeking to end FGM.


However, in parts of the world where FGM is practiced, laws criminalizing or restricting the custom continue to vary from country to country. Officially, Dijibouti, which ratified the Maputo Protocol, banned FGM in 1998. It is also illegal in Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda, with punishment ranging from fines to jail time to death.


Other countries, such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Iraq, have passed no law to limit or end the custom. Meanwhile, it is banned in Lebanon.


There is a general consensus among Western nations that FGM is a violation of human rights, based on the physical and psychological harms that result. There is also widespread recognition of the cultural tensions surrounding the practice, and that working with cultural and religious leaders is important.


France prosecutes the immigrant practice of altering a daughters’ genitalia. In the United Kingdom, a child will be removed from the family if that is the only means of protecting her from FGM. And in Canada, the custom is considered assault. The United States enacted federal legislation that has banned ritual cutting since 1996, and 17 states have their own laws criminalizing the custom.


According to WHO, the only country where FGM is decreasing is the Central African Republic, where the procedure is banned. But it was not prevalent there to begin with, and no arrests have been reported.


The organization estimates that it will take at least 10 years to reduce the rate of FGM worldwide, and three generations to eradicate it altogether.

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