Long way to go in fight against FGM - UN

Governments, NGOs and affected communities must continue the struggle to end the suffering of an estimated three million girls around the world who endure the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) every year, UN agencies have said.

"Today, during the next 24 hours, an estimated 6,000 girls will undergo the practice of female genital mutilation or cutting," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), on Monday, the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM.

"I join many others in calling for an end to this practice, which violates the rights of women and girls and harms their sexual and reproductive health," she added.

FGM is a surgical procedure performed on the genitals of girls and women in at least 28 countries globally. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that up to 140 million girls and women around the world have undergone some form of FGM.

The practice is found extensively in Africa, but is also found in parts of the Middle East and among immigrant communities around the world.

"In Sudan, the estimate is that over 89 percent of women have gone through some form of FGM," Ted Chaiban, UNICEF representative in Sudan, told IRIN on Monday. "These women deserve the right to be whole and complete women within their communities. Female genital mutilation is a violation of that right."

"It is our goal to get the message out there to the communities about the harmful consequences [such as difficulties during child birth, excessive bleeding and death] of this practice," he added, "convincing them to change and then in turn getting them to speak about the issue to other communities."

Efforts must come "from within"

UNFPA's Obaid commended the efforts of people who are working to end the practice, and noted that change had to come from the communities engaging in the practice, as traditions were often stronger than law.

"Perhaps more than any other issue, female genital mutilation or cutting has taught us that change cannot be imposed from outside," she said. "It must come from within."

Obaid cited the culturally sensitive practice of "circumcision by words" in Kenya, where certain communities maintain the rituals that lead adolescent girls to womanhood, but use ceremonies that exclude FGM.

UNICEF noted that throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Sudan, a social movement was growing to end the practice.

"Over the last six years, thousands of villages in West Africa have joined together in public pledging ceremonies to abandon FGM, bringing greater hopes of ending the practice globally within a single generation," the agency said.

"In Senegal, largely thanks to the work of TOSTAN, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on educating communities about human rights and human dignity, tens of thousands of people have declared their abandonment of the practice," it added.

UNICEF said that in Egypt, the FGM-Free Village Model project was bringing together government and UN partners to encourage villages in the southern region to make public declarations against FGM.

Public awareness programmes have also proved crucial in getting the anti-FGM message across. In the conservative Gulf of Aden state of Yemen, the first public discussion of the practice took place in 2001.

"When I was first asked to work on FGM five years ago, I refused to speak about it in public," said Fatima Saeed al-Mursi, Aden director of the Yemeni Women's Union, in November 2005. "Now I speak about it on television - that's progress."

Human rights activists have also put pressure on governments to criminalize FGM. At least 16 African countries have banned the practice, and the Maputo Protocol, a regional document that explicitly prohibits and condemns FGM, came into force in November 2005.

Ann Veneman, UNICEF executive director, said ending FGM was essential to the success of the UN Millennium Development Goals on improving maternal health, promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality.

"We stand at a pivotal moment in history as we work toward a truly positive collective change," she said.