More countries are banning FGM but millions are still at risk

Amidst the ongoing news coverage about the COVID-19 pandemic, the world took one small step towards becoming a safer place for girls. In May, Sudan criminalized the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a watershed victory in a country where 87% of girls and women have been cut or mutilated.

For the past two decades, Plan International has been working tirelessly to end FGM in Sudan, together with women and child rights advocates, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donors. The announcement that FGM is outlawed is a milestone and definite cause for celebration, but it’s also important to remember that this is only the beginning.

Girl holding up sign that says "Protect all Children"

Together, we must keep the momentum going and prepare to support implementation of the new laws through clear accountability, appropriate resource allocation and a nation-wide awareness campaign to shift attitudes, change behaviors, and challenge deeply-ingrained beliefs about girls and women. Only then can we truly end FGM in Sudan – and in many other countries too.

What is FGM?

FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and a form of gender-based violence. The procedure is often performed without consent and is done between infancy and age 15.

FGM has no health benefits, rather it increases health risks – girls and women are more likely to experience complications during childbirth if they have been cut. It also causes other conditions such as urinary tract infections, uterine infections, kidney infections, cysts, reproductive issues and pain during sex.

why is FGM practiced?

FGM continues to be practiced in many countries because gender inequality and discriminatory social and cultural norms uphold the idea that FGM is tied to beauty and femininity. The practice is also believed to preserve chastity, cleanliness, family honor and “save” a girl for marriage.

At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone a form of FGM, and if current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to it by 2030.

A global trend towards ending FGM

The good news, however, is that there has been a global trend towards banning the practice of FGM over the last 30 years.

According to a recent study, rates of female genital mutilation have fallen dramatically among girls in Africa since the 1990s, especially in East Africa – dropping from 71% of girls under 14 in 1995, to 8% in 2016.

In North Africa, the rate fell from almost 60% in 1990 to 14% in 2015. West Africa also saw a significant drop, from 74% of girls in 1996, to 25% in 2017.

group of youth from Guinea, standing with arms crossed
Plan International Youth groups, like this empowered group from Guinea, are leading change and spreading awareness about the dangers of FGM. 

Opposition to the practice is also growing among countries most affected by FGM. According to Plan International’s research (from FGM-practicing countries where data is available), an average of 67% of girls and women aged 15-49 think FGM should end, and 63% of boys and men think it should end too.

Moreover, adolescent girls are more likely than older women to oppose the continuation of FGM – suggesting that girls can lead the way towards abandonment of the practice.

COVID-19 could setback the work to end FGM

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to halt the progress made to eradicate FGM in countries around the world. According to the UNFPA, 2 million girls who would otherwise be safe from FGM are believed to be at risk over the next decade as a direct result of the virus.

This is due to the reality that programs to prevent and end FGM are delayed because of lockdown restrictions.

When addressing FGM, a community-based approach where information and perspectives are exchanged has proven to be successful. However, lockdown restrictions mean those dialogues aren’t happening and safe spaces have been closed. At the same time, more girls are out of school, confined to their homes and there is little visibility on what is happening behind closed doors.

As it stands, the world is already seeing signs of a surge in violence against women and girls since the start of the pandemic, with increased reports to domestic violence hotlines, crisis centres and justice officials.

African girl wearing face mask

Supporting girl’s rights

As an organization, Plan International is dedicated to ending FGM and upholding the human rights of girls.

During this pandemic, we are doing our utmost to mitigate the setbacks for girl’s rights and are demanding that protection for girls and their rights to sexual and reproductive health remain central to the COVID-19 response. In addition, we are calling for services preventing and responding to gender-based violence and harmful practices – including FGM – to be deemed as essential during this time.

If you would like to learn more about how we’re responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, then please visit our COVID-19 response page.

Alternatively, if you would like to learn more about our programming to end FGM, then read about how we worked with FGM cutters in Guinea to give up their knives and protect girl’s rights.

Questions related to this story:

What are the common misconceptions surrounding FGM?

Which child rights violations are still happening today?

How many girls are out of school due to COVID-19?

How is COVID-19 impacting girls and women?