UNITED NATIONS - The good news is that female circumcision -- also known as female genital mutilation -- has decreased in a number of nations. The bad news is that the figures are still shocking after years of campaigns.
The practice of cutting into female organs is prevalent in a number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and south Asia as well as among migrant families in Europe and the United States. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is usually carried out between infancy and 15 years of age to keep women "pure," marriageable and unable to enjoy sex. Consequences include severe bleeding, childbirth complications, and of course pain.
The latest figures, released by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), show that over 6,000 communities have chosen to abandon the practice in Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea and Somalia.
But... there is always a but...
In Ethiopia, the prevalence rate has fallen from 80 percent to 74 percent, in Kenya from 32 percent to 27 percent, and in Egypt from 97 percent to 91 percent, according to Nfissatou Diop, coordinator of the program. The prevalence rate is based on a representative sample, not a door-to-door census.
In other words, this means that 91 percent of Egyptian females aged 15-49 years old may have been circumcised, most of them when they were young and could not protect themselves. The surveys are conducted by the U.S.-based Macro International every 5-6 years.
So, does that mean that most of the spirited young woman demonstrators and bloggers we have seen on TV have lost control over their bodies? Or do they belong to the lucky 10 percent?
The practice is outlawed in Egypt although hardly anyone has been prosecuted. The now-former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, called female circumcision "a flagrant example of continued physical and psychological violence against children which must stop." Last May 1, she appeared at Aswan City alongside local officials to declare the province free of it. Hopefully the ouster of the Mubarak family will not result in a backlash on this issue.
Three million girls face FGM/C every year in Africa and worldwide, and up to 140 million women and girls have already undergone the practice, the UN agencies report.
Among the nations practicing female circumcision are 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq's Kurdistan area. The procedure has also been reported among certain populations in India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many countries have enacted laws against FGM: 19 in Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia); 11 in Europe (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Britain). And the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand also have legislation against FGM.
But enforcing them is as difficult as the Pope's ban on birth control.
Waris Dirie speaks
One of the most famous advocates against FGM was Waris Dirie of Somalia, a model, actress and human rights activist. She has spoken and written about how her mother held her down when she was cut, without anesthesia, by a gypsy woman. Her vaginal opening was stitched closed with thorns. "Can you imagine anything worse than hearing the screams of pain of your own child?" she asks. She trekked across Somalia barefoot to escape an arranged marriage.
The International Organization for Migration advocates work among immigrants. "Traditional practices don't die when a migrant's boat or plane journey ends. With its partners, IOM is committed to eliminating FGM within a generation. However, this will only happen if practicing migrant communities are fully included in efforts to end FGM," said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.
Many religious leaders, both Muslims and Christians, say the practice is not related to religion but has been a part of tradition for hundreds if not thousands of years. But a World Health Organization-funded study a year ago found that there are contradictory messages from religious scholars and sheiks. The nagging question is how mothers and fathers can continue the painful practice, generation after generation.
Incontinence and maternal mortality are among the health hazards of female circumcision. Yet the new U.S. Congress, in an apparent fixation on practices below the waist, is eager to cut any funds to Planned Parenthood and its reproductive health programs. No doubt UNFPA will be next as it was in the Bush administration.
The argument is denouncing any mention of abortion, although that is a rare discussion in developing nations. Abstinence is frequently advocated rather than birth control. Yet UNFPA estimates that 215 million women in the developing world want to delay or avoid pregnancy but have no access to contraception. For circumcised women, the choice of whether to have another child is an especially poignant question.