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A teenager from Uganda's Sebei tribe sits inside a mud hut after undergoing female genital mutilation in Bukwa district, about 357 kms (214 miles) northeast of Kampala, December 15, 2008. The ceremony was to initiate teenage girls into womanhood according to Sebei traditional rites. (James Akena/Reuters/James Akena/Reuters)
A teenager from Uganda's Sebei tribe sits inside a mud hut after undergoing female genital mutilation in Bukwa district, about 357 kms (214 miles) northeast of Kampala, December 15, 2008. The ceremony was to initiate teenage girls into womanhood according to Sebei traditional rites. (James Akena/Reuters/James Akena/Reuters)

Geoffrey York

Support for female circumcision declining in Africa, study shows Add to ...

Some experts thought it was so embedded in traditional culture that it would never change. But new evidence shows that African countries have made surprising progress in reducing the rate of female genital cutting, a controversial and often illegal practice that can cause lifelong injury and illness to girls and women.

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The procedure is a rite of passage for young girls in many ethnic groups in Africa and some parts of Asia and the Middle East. Millions of girls are cut or mutilated in Africa every year. In total, an estimated 70 to 140 million girls and women worldwide have endured genital cutting.

But now the trend is shifting. In countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, female genital cutting has become less common in the past decade. And in other countries such as Sudan and Egypt, surveys are finding that the practice has declining support from ordinary people in many communities, thanks to intense educational campaigns.

A new study, to be released Wednesday by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, explains how these educational campaigns have succeeded in weakening the popularity of a practice that is considered a violation of human rights and a severe health risk.

The problem

Female genital cutting, also known as female circumcision or female genital mutilation, involves the removal of female external genitalia, or inflicting other injuries to the genital organs. It is widespread in many African cultures because of traditional beliefs that the practice can preserve virginity, reduce promiscuity, protect hygiene, assist fertility and make a girl more eligible for marriage.

The procedure can cause bleeding, infection, and severe pain during menstruation and intercourse. Because of the scars left by the genital wounds, women often have a heightened risk of obstructed labour, stillbirths, emergency cesarean sections, and fistula - a serious condition that causes chronic incontinence and often leads to abandonment by their families and communities.

In many African countries, up to 95 per cent of girls are subjected to genital cutting. It is illegal in some countries, but the law is widely ignored. Female genital cutting is also found in some immigrant communities in Western countries, including Canada, despite its illegality.

Girls who refuse the procedure - and their families - can face ostracism or even violence from their communities. Many families believe that the procedure is prescribed by religious doctrine, even though no major religion requires it.

The solutions

Opposition to female genital cutting has been growing rapidly in recent years. This month, political leaders from 42 countries called for a worldwide ban on the practice. A ban, however, will not be enough. It has to be combined with a sophisticated campaign of education in communities where the practice is common.

The report by UNICEF's research centre suggests that there is no simple solution to the problem of female genital cutting. But the most effective strategies, it says, are those that frame the discussion in a non-threatening way, building trust and reinforcing the positive aspects of local culture. Successful strategies tend to involve legislative reform, national policies, media pressure, and respected community members such as religious leaders.

In Ethiopia, for example, campaigners have organized a series of festivities and public weddings for women who refused to undergo genital cutting. Brides and bridesmaids wear signs saying: "I will not be circumcised. Learn from me!" The grooms wear placards saying: "I am happy to marry an uncircumcised woman."

In Egypt, villages have made public declarations of their intent to end the practice, with many villagers signing a public pledge to refrain from genital cutting. In Kenya, thousands of people have attended festivities to celebrate "uncut girls," while dozens of practitioners who do the genital cutting have publicly taken an oath to abandon the practice.

The progress

There is mounting evidence of a shift in African attitudes about female genital cutting over the past decade, the UNICEF report says. "Individuals and communities are increasingly questioning the merits of these practices and would prefer, circumstances permitting, to not have their daughters cut," it says.

In Ethiopia, according to the latest data, 81 per cent of women aged 45 to 49 had been subjected to genital cutting, but only 62 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had been cut. Younger mothers were nearly five times less likely to have a daughter cut than older mothers. And surveys found a dramatic drop in support for the practice. It was supported by 60 per cent of adult women in 2000 and just 31 per cent a few years later.

In Kenya, the rate of female genital cutting decreased from 32 per cent in 2003 to 27 per cent five years later. Surveys showed that support for the procedure among women had fallen by more than half, from 20 per cent to just 9 per cent. In Sudan, support for genital cutting among women declined from 79 per cent in the late 1980s to just 51 per cent in 2006.



Changing Attitudes

Opposition to female genital cutting has been growing rapidly in recent years. A new study takes a look at the prevalence of female circumcision among women aged 15 to 49, and how support for the practice among women in the same age group has changed over time.



Country

% prevalence

% support then

% support now

Egypt

91 (2008)

82 (1995)

63 (2008)

Ethiopia

74 (2005)

60 (2000)

31 (2005)

Kenya

27 (2008-09)

20 (1998)

9 (2008-09)

Senegal

28 (2005)

18 (2005)

NA*

Sudan

89 (2006)

79 (1989-90)

51 (2006)

* Data for later years is not available.

Source: Unicef, Innocenti Research Centre

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