Is Education the Answer to Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting?
A new report from UNICEF suggests that the risk of genital mutilation is higher when women lack formal education.
August 08, 2013 by Koli Banik, USAID
5 minutes read
Credit: UNICEF/Hana Yoshimoto

New UNICEF report links prevalence of genital mutilation/cutting to lack of basic education

Today, more than 125 million girls and women have been affected by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM/C) in 29 countries. According to a new report from UNICEF entitled, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Statistical Overview and Exploration of the Dynamics of Change”, almost all of the girls/women experienced genital mutilation/cutting before the age of 15, and often lacked a formal education. UNICEF estimates that as many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade if current trends persist.

For over a century, FGM/C has been practiced in a number of countries around the world—mainly in Africa and the Middle East.  UNICEF reports that some countries such as Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt have prevalence levels above 90 percent.  The most common reasons for this practice include cleanliness and hygiene, social acceptance, improved marriage prospects, preserving virginity, increasing sexual pleasure for men and religion. It is usually carried out on girls from the age of four until they hit puberty. The practice continues because of deep cultural and religious traditions where social norms, patriarchy, and gender inequality remain a constant challenge.


What can be done?

FGM/C is considered a human rights violation in some countries and a form of violence against women prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Twenty-six countries in Africa and the Middle East have prohibited FGM/C by law or constitutional decree, but each country varies in the type of legislation that has been enacted—which means that the practice can still be widespread and seen as acceptable.

There is a need to create a social movement and mass education campaigns toward eliminating FCM/C, however it is not as easy as it sounds. The UNICEF report rightly states that legislation tends to be ineffective unless it is accompanied by measures to influence cultural traditions and expectations, because it fails to address the practice within its broader social context.  This explains why current efforts by governments, civil society, religious institutions, international agencies, and other bi-lateral and multilateral agencies have had difficulty to eliminate the practice.

Advocating for change with girls’ education

In Somalia, which has the some of the highest rates of FGM/C and acceptance rates, the cultural sensitivities on the topic are deeply rooted.

MaryBeth McKeever, Program Advisor from USAID Somalia’s office said, “One possible advocacy avenue is to work with the community education communities (CEC).  These communities are composed of parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and traditional/religious leaders and each school has one.  The CECs have been instrumental in increasing girls’ education and can help girls and women make informed choices on decisions that will impact their health, education, and lives.”

Almost all of the 29 countries covered in the UNICEF report are members of the Global Partnership for Education.  However, educational interventions and programs vary country by country.  As a start, the UNICEF report could be used as a tool to engage partners in the local education group to discuss ways to ensure girls and their mothers are educated about the harmful effects of FGM/C with the hope that this practice ends soon.

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