End Female Genital Mutilation Yesterday!

Group of school kids playing on a wooden climbing frame, South London, UK, 2000s. (Photo by: PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images)
Group of school kids playing on a wooden climbing frame, South London, UK, 2000s. (Photo by: PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images)

This Saturday, 6 February, was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. On this and every other day, the genitals of 8,000 girls will be mutilated, usually at the behest of parents and communities as a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. But for the nearly three million girls who were subjected to this practice last year, it was a passage only to a lifetime of pain, health problems and human rights violations. Or, in some cases, a passage to death.

The practice is widespread in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. But it also occurs in developed countries, like Norway, where the government and civil society organizations from the diaspora communities affected by the practice have been working together against it for a long time, and have achieved good results.

In 2015, the international community committed to eliminating female genital mutilation everywhere. One of the targets of the newly adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to end such harmful practices against women and girls by 2030.

Protecting girls from genital mutilation is critical to their safe and healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood and to the realization of their full potential in life. It also empowers them to propel their nations' progress and development.

Since 2007, Norway has supported a joint effort by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and UNICEF to encourage communities to abandon this harmful practice. This effort is premised on the understanding that traditions, customs and behaviours change over time, but for change to be meaningful and lasting, it must come from within communities which collectively decide to abandon the practice. It is also based on the reality that parents everywhere want to do what is best for their children.

For families to be willing to challenge their long-term beliefs and traditions, they must trust that the new information they receive will benefit their communities, improve their lives and be widely accepted by those around them. When parents come to understand the health risks associated with female genital mutilation and the negative impact the practice has on girls' lives, they are more willing to abandon the practice, which in some parts of the world has gone on for centuries.

UNFPA works in communities in dozens of countries, raising parents' and girls' awareness of the consequences of female genital mutilation and the benefits of protecting girls from this harmful practice. It does so in partnership with many national and local organizations, as well as countries including Norway. As a result of this effort, 15,490 communities so far have collectively decided to abandon female genital mutilation.

This is a positive decision that communities themselves have made and have celebrated through public, collective declarations. In places where female genital mutilation had been seen for generations as an essential rite of passage, such declarations also serve to assure girls that their future acceptance and respect by their communities will no longer depend on whether they have endured this practice.

In ending female genital mutilation, parents and communities are not only sparing girls the immediate pain and trauma but are also protecting their human rights.

In most developing and developed countries, the practice has been outlawed, but it persists. Whether in Norway or in sub-Saharan Africa, a sustained and concerted effort to raise awareness about its harmful effects and about the benefits of not subjecting girls to this practice can lead to its demise. Continuous community engagement is essential. UNFPA and Norway stand together to encourage all communities to consign this practice to history, to free girls from its damaging effects, and to contribute to the realization of girls' and women's potential everywhere. The world needs their power if it is to fulfill its sustainable development promise.

Børge Brende, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Norway
Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UN Under-Secretary-General, UNFPA Executive Director