Why are we still talking about FGM in the 21st century? Picture show website of the Gambia's Dropping the Knife campaign2015: The campaign for ‘Dropping the Knife’ in The Gambia.

While progress has been made in eradicating female genital mutilation, millions of girls are still subjected to the barbaric practice.

As much of the world looks forward to celebrating Christmas (and many people mark this week’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women), for many unfortunate girls the December holiday will also be the ‘cutting season’, when they are taken, usually unwittingly, to have their genitals mutilated in the name of tradition.

The numbers are staggering: every 11 seconds a girl, often still a baby, suffers FGM – and one in three of those will die from loss of blood, septicaemia or other complications. Some 200 million girls and women are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation, such as chronic pain, infections, HIV, depression, birth complications and infertility. The UN Population Fund estimated in 2018 that another 68 million girls would be subjected to FGM by 2030. And one of the biggest studies of the mortality rate from the practice estimates that FGM causes an estimated 44,320 excess deaths a year across the countries where it is practised – the fourth biggest cause of death among girls and young women.

Diaspora communities

FGM is documented in 92 countries around the world, largely in Africa but also in Asia. Of these, it is known to be practised in nearly a third of Commonwealth member states: the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Malaysia. And, though it has increasingly gone underground, it continues among diaspora communities in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In many Commonwealth countries in Africa, FGM remains highly prevalent. According to the latest available data, 21% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 in Kenya have undergone FGM; 25% in Nigeria; and 75% in the Gambia. Even within countries with relatively low overall rates, it can be very high within certain ethnic groups, such as the Samburu in Kenya, where the prevalence is put at 86%.

In many of these Commonwealth countries, FGM has been banned – and yet it persists. For instance, it has been illegal in Britain since 1985, with further legislation in 2004 tightening the law. But despite there being an estimated 170,000 women and girls in the UK living with FGM in 2011, the first conviction for FGM committed in the UK was only in 2019, when a Ugandan woman from east London was accused of mutilating her three-year-old daughter two years earlier. It took another four years for the UK authorities to secure their second FGM conviction, when Amina Noor, a Somali-born Londoner, was found guilty last month of aiding the genital mutilation of a three-year-old girl in Kenya in 2006. It was the first time someone in Britain had been convicted of FGM abroad.

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There has been huge progress in changing attitudes among parents in the countries where FGM is most entrenched, and especially among the women who carry out the cutting, such as the ceremonies known as ‘Dropping of the Knife’ in the Gambia. The percentage of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in high-prevalence countries who think the practice should stop has doubled to 54% since 2000, and half of those who have been cut themselves think the practice should end, Unicef has found.

Yet it must never be assumed that progress cannot be undone, even when it concerns what is essentially ‘violent crime against women’, as an Egyptian minister put it. Even the Economist argued a few years ago that only ‘the worst forms’ should be banned and governments should ‘permit those that cause no long-lasting harm and try to persuade parents to choose the least nasty version, or none at all’. Presumably, the Economist’s leader writer – a man, one can assume – considered infibulation (the removal of the inner and outer labia, and suturing of the vulva) as too extreme, while removing the clitoris was acceptable.

Nevertheless, change is happening in most countries. The UN agency’s profiles for Commonwealth countries prove that even the most entrenched of ancient customs can be eradicated. In the Maldives, the savage practice has all but disappeared; a dramatic generational change has seen rates go from 38% among women aged 45 to 49 to just 1% among females aged 15 to 19.

In Kenya, where successive presidents have pledged to end FGM, there has been a significant decline: women aged 45 to 49 are almost four times more likely to have been cut than girls aged 15 to 19. Crucially, attitudes are shifting within Kenyan ethnic groups where it is most prevalent, with Samburu and Maasai elders now supportive of ending FGM, and lifting the traditional curse that ostracised uncut girls.

In Nigeria, the rate has roughly halved. Sierra Leone, too, is moving in the right direction: from 96% among women aged 45-49 to 64% for 15 to 19-year-olds. Only the Gambia shows almost no change, with the same very high percentage (74-77%) of all female cohorts, aged from 15 to 49, having undergone FGM.

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‘Fight against Islam’

A large number of National Assembly members in the Gambia – including female MPs – recently called for the repeal of the ban on FGM. Despite most Muslim clerics denouncing FGM and insisting that it is not religiously sanctioned, Abdoulie Fatty, a prominent imam and an ‘ardent supporter of FGM’, paid the fines of three women convicted of mutilating girls. According to the Gambia’s Standard newspaper, Fatty said: ‘This campaign against female circumcision is actually a fight against Islam.’

However much progress there has been globally since this writer reported for the Round Table on a British government FGM initiative eight years ago, it is far too little, sadly. And that goes for the Commonwealth, too. Perhaps it stems from institutional inertia or maybe cultural relativism has led to an undue respect for ritual mutilation, but despite a declaration by the secretary-general, Patricia Scotland – at last year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls – that ending violence against women and girls was a key focus of her leadership, there appears to have been no mention of FGM on the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website in more than four years.

As William Ruto, the Kenyan president, said last December, ‘FGM should not be a conversation we are having’ in the 21st century. Though he was talking about the struggle to abolish the barbaric practice in his own country, it is just as true of the rest of the world.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board