United Nations — When society doesn't act to prevent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) it has a massive economic cost -- over $1 billion -- on communities globally. And while the practice is starting to become less common over time, experts say a large number of women and girls still remain affected.
"By calculating the costs of FGM to women and society, this study shows that inaction has an economic cost and that investment in prevention will reduce costs in the long-term," Elizabeth Noble, Information Officer of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Unit of the World Health Organisation (WHO), told IPS.
She was referring to last week's release of FGM "Cost Calculator" by the WHO, that highlights the massive economic costs societies have to go through as a result of the practice that's considered a human rights violation by advocates.
The interactive tool, available here, was launched on Feb. 6 to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
Currently, the economic burden of treating health complications arising out of FGM practices across 27 countries included in WHO's dataset, stands at a staggering $1.4 billion annually.
Taking into account population growth, the amount can increase by 50 percent in the next 30 years, given that the prevalence of FGM remains as it stands today, explained Noble.
However, abandoning the practice would lead to a projected decrease in 60 percent of that cost, she told IPS.
The calculator, she says, "allows the user to visualise the costs of treating the health complications of FGM, by country, over a 30 year period, while also showing the costs averted by preventing FGM".
An official from Plan International told IPS that there are currently 200 million girls and women alive today who have been affected by FGM.
"It is believed that by mutilating the girl's genital organs, her sexuality will be controlled and her virginity before marriage will be guaranteed. This has severe consequence for girls' sexual and reproductive health and rights," Alex Munive, Head of Gender and Inclusion of the Girls 2030 Programmes at Plan International Global Hub, told IPS.
He also detailed the long-term and short-term effects of the practice: infection, haemorrhage, psychological trauma and even death as seen in the immediate aftermath of the practice, and chronic pain, chronic urinary problems, obstetric complications including fistula and sexual problems seen in the long-run.
Munive says the practice, while becoming less common overtime, still has a large number of girls and women affected when taking into account population growth.
Beyond health, it also affects girls in their education.
"FGM is seen as initiation rite preparing girls for marriage," Munive told IPS. "Once a girl is cut, they are married off quickly and are taken out of school. They are treated like adult women and lose all their child rights."
Education itself can be means to address the concerns, he says.
"We recognise that education is a powerful tool for preventing FGM," he said. "Girls who benefit from a quality education are less likely to marry while they are still children."
It's also pertinent to take into account that FGM is often done as part of cultural practices, which means advocates have to tread softly when approaching communities to address this issue.
To this, Noble of WHO said "strategies towards abandonment must take into consideration the underlying social and cultural beliefs about the practice."
"It is therefore important to engage with opinion leaders in practicing communities," she told IPS. "WHO is also working with nurses and midwives and other health care providers to strengthen their role as opinion leaders in abandonment of the practice."