opinionBy Ambassador James Swan
Today, on the tenth anniversary of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the U.S. government stands in solidarity with the four African first ladies who first declared this Day on February 6, 2003, with people around the world, and with those in Somalia who are working together to help end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
FGM/C is a procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. The practice is often performed by untrained practitioners, without anesthesia, and uses instruments such as broken glass, tin lids, scissors, or unsterilized razors. In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the procedure poses severe short- and long-term health risks, including hemorrhage, infection, and increased risk of HIV transmission, birth complications, and even death. In the places where FGM/C is most prevalent, it is usually accepted as a rite of passage rather than as the harmful traditional practice and human rights abuse that it is.
As then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, "We cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition... We cannot excuse it as a private matter because it has very broad public implications... And as we think about the rights of young girls to be free from both physical and mental violence, we can understand why this is such an important issue that deserves attention from the United States Congress and from leaders across the globe."
It is estimated that 100 to 140 million women around the world have undergone FGM/C. Ending this practice requires high-level political commitment as well as community-based approaches and solutions. In December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly for the first time adopted a resolution calling on nations to intensify efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting in their countries. This resolution was sponsored by two-thirds of all the UN member states, including the United States, and was supported by the Group of African States, a sign of the willingness to address this issue in the region.
Countries that have made tremendous strides to abolish the practice - such as Senegal and Burkina Faso - are models, largely due to the leadership of local communities to embrace changes to the deeply held attitudes, norms and practices that underpin FGM/C. Often, this success is accomplished in partnership with community-based NGOs that help develop effective local solutions. But this is not just a local issue; we must all remain vigilant to the possibility that women and girls who are vulnerable to FGM/C live in countries around the world. In recent years there have been an alarming number of cases among Diaspora communities in Europe, Australia, and even the United States of families sending children back to their countries of origin to be cut.
In Somalia, UNICEF estimates that as many as 98 percent of women of reproductive age have been subjected to FGM/C. Infibulation, the most harmful form FGM/C, is practiced widely in Somalia according to the United Nations Development Program 2012-2015 report on Strengthening Gender Equality and Woman's Empowerment in Somalia. There is a need to raise awareness, particularly amongst Somali men, of the positive impact that abolishing FGM/C and improving women's status and health can have on the Somali community as a whole. The same UNDP report, for example, estimates that Somalia's maternal mortality rate was 1,400 per 100,000 live births in 2012. Complications during labor deriving from FGM/C and lack of medical care are key factors in this high mortality rate.
Now is the opportune moment to strive to end FGM/C. More and more people around the world are showing willingness to discuss it openly, and there is positive political will to support anti-FGM/C initiatives. Somalia is a case in point. In August 2012, the Somali people adopted a forward-leaning provisional constitution that courageously speaks out against FGM/C. Article 15(4) of the constitution states that, "Female circumcision is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited." We congratulate Somalia on sending a strong message that FGM/C will no longer be tolerated in Somalia. We also congratulate Puntland regional authorities for outlawing circumcision in December 2011, but regret the exception for the "Sunna" form of FGM/C. We encourage the Puntland administration to outlaw all forms of FGM/C in line with the provisional federal constitution. We also congratulate Somaliland for outlawing FGM/C and for its ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive FGM/C policy for Somaliland.
All Somalis must now work to turn these legal prohibitions against FGM/C into positive change for their daughters' health and lives.
The U.S. government supports the women and men around the world who denounce this egregious practice and act to abolish it. Together we have made tremendous progress over the past decade, but much remains to be done. We must all continue to work as one - men, women, grandfathers, grandmothers, community and religious leaders, governments, civil society, and multilateral organizations - to overturn entrenched practices that are harmful not only to women and girls, but to our families, communities and nations.
Ambassador James Swan
U.S. Special Representative for Somalia