70 Million More Girls Underwent Genital Cutting Than Previously Thought, UNICEF Finds

Despite the increase, officials remain confident they can end the practice within a generation.
A woman and her daughters at their home in Cambadju, in the Bafatá region of Guinea-Bissau. Their village is the first in the country to renounce female genital mutilation/cutting. (Photo: UNICEF/LeMoyne)
Feb 5, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

It’s happened to 98 percent of women living in Somalia, 97 percent of women in Guinea, and 90 percent of women in Sierra Leone. While the global rate of female genital mutilation is declining, a new report shows that more work needs to be done to end the harmful practice.

At least 200 million women and girls alive today have suffered from female genital mutilation across 30 countries, according to a report released Friday by UNICEF. That figure marks a sharp increase from the 2014 figure (125 million) reported by the U.N.’s children’s agency. That’s largely because of new data obtained from Indonesia, where nearly half of girls under the age of 14 have undergone female cutting.

UNICEF’s report comes a day before the U.N.’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The organization has long condemned the practice as a fundamental violation of women’s and girls’ right to bodily integrity that is deeply rooted in gender inequality.

“Never before has it been more urgent—or more possible—to end the practice of female genital mutilation, preventing immeasurable human suffering and boosting the power of women and girls to have a positive impact on our world,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in message about tomorrow’s event. One of the U.N.’s development goals is to end FGM by 2030—but that won’t happen unless further action is taken.

An additional 15 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 will undergo the procedure by 2030, UNICEF predicts. Even though the overall percentage of women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation has dropped from 51 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2016 in the 30 countries where FGM is prominent, the decline is not fast enough to keep up with population growth.

Often carried out with unsterile equipment, the painful procedure to remove the clitoris can cause infections and fatal hemorrhages. Women continue to suffer from FGM as they grow older, as it can make sex painful and cause infertility.

There are no benefits to FGM, yet the practice has continued—even in nations where it’s criminalized—owing to long-held traditions. Societies where FGM is prevalent often believe that female cutting will diminish a woman’s libido and guarantee her marital fidelity, the World Health Organization reports. Others believe it is used by strongly patriarchal societies as a means of dividing women, as some women are able to achieve orgasm after the procedure, but most are not.

But these mind-sets might be changing. UNICEF’s report shows that in countries where FGM is the most common, most citizens think the practice should be banned.

“I am encouraged by the rising chorus of young voices demanding an end to the practice,” Ban wrote. “We can end FGM within a generation, bringing us closer to a world where the human rights of all every woman, child, and adolescent are fully respected, their health is protected, and they can contribute more to our common future.”