U.N. Calls for End to Painful Tradition That Hurts Little Girls

A tradition in some African and Middle Eastern countries violates women's health rights.

Salimata Knight, a survivor of genital mutilation. (Photo: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Stephanie Mercado is a journalism student at Cal State-Fullerton and formerly worked at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Manika was eight years old when it happened.

“This is just like you’re taking somebody’s life," said the 25-year-old in an interview with The Guardian.

She is still terrified of sex as a result.

"I can't let my body move properly so that I can do it. I still have this at the back of my mind...it makes me feel scared," she said.

Manika suffered female genital mutilation, a traditional procedure still carried out against millions of girls in Arab-Muslim areas, mostly in northern and western regions of Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

The World Health Organization defines the procedure, also sometimes called female genital cutting, as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” It typically involves removal of the clitoris, often without anesthesia or proper sanitary practices appropriate for a medical procedure. Human Rights Watch uses the term female genital mutilation, as opposed to "female circumcision," which has been used in the past, to “emphasize the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences associated with this procedure."

FGM has been performed on at least 125 million women and girls living today, according to advocates.

Girls as young as four are ritually cut in roughly 29 countries, according to a UNICEF report issued Monday. Girls in Somalia and Egypt fare worst: About 98 percent and 91 percent, respectively, of girls in those countries are cut. In eight countries, on average more than 80 percent of girls undergo the procedure.

Thursday marks the United Nations' International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is calling for a balance between tradition and harm.

“There is no developmental, religious, or health reason to cut or mutilate any girl or woman. Although some would argue that this is a 'tradition,' we must recall that slavery, so-called honor killings and other inhuman practices have been defended with the same weak argument,” Ban said.

“Just because a harmful practice has long existed does not justify its continuation. All ‘traditions’ that demean, dehumanize and injure are human rights violations that must be actively opposed until they are ended.”

The practice is generally not tied to any one religion, culture, or nation, activists said.

International NGO Tostan, which is based in Senegal, says it is difficult to convince everyday Africans why the practice should end.

"In communities where FGC is practiced, community members will not eat food cooked by a woman who is not cut, will not accept water from her, will not even sit with her," said Director of External Relations Gannon Gillespie. "She will have difficulty getting married. To imply that parents are actually ‘mutilating’ their daughters through a decision made with love and concern for her well-being is unfair to them and risks alienating and offending them rather than convincing them to abandon the practice."

Efforts to divert this “social norm” toward better education for women, for example, are slowly under way in some countries. A campaign called “Saleema” aims to open up debate in Sudan about FGM as a human rights violation, as opposed to a common practice or tradition.

“ 'Saleema' is an Arabic word which means complete, intact—whole, as God created, untouched,” explained UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Samira Ahmed.

The awareness campaign has achieved some success: Roughly 18 countries have outlawed the practice as of 2013—but eradicating the practice completely requires continuous public support.

Ban gave an example of the social change the U.N. is seeing as a result of the campaign: “One father moved by the effort who decided to leave his daughters uncut explained simply, ‘A girl is born Saleema, so leave her Saleema.’ ”