UNICEF reports that over 230 million women and girls around the world are victims of female genital mutilation News
Shev123, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
UNICEF reports that over 230 million women and girls around the world are victims of female genital mutilation

UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, released a report Friday on International Women’s Day alleging that more than 230 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), an increase of 30 million or 15 percent compared with the data in 2016.

FGM is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, which the UN claims reflects entrenched gender inequality in modern societies. It can lead to both immediate health risks, such as infection, HIV transmission and urine retention, as well as longer-term psychological impacts, including losing trust in caregivers, anxiety and depression. Notably, FGM violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) estimation, over 4 million girls are at risk of FGM each year, and an additional 2 million cases of FGM are predicted to occur over the next decade due to COVID-19-related school closures and disruptions to supporting programs.

UNICEF, in partnership with UNFPA, launched a Joint Programme in 2008, supported by several Western countries, to eradicate FGM by shifting social norms in affected communities and working with governments to enforce viable national response systems. The Friday report does include some successes of the program. Examples of countries that have seen a decline in FGM since the start of the program include Kenya, declining from moderate to low prevalence; Sierra Leone, dropping from high to moderately high prevalence; and Egypt, beginning to fall from a previously near-universal level. According to the report, around two-thirds of the population in practicing countries in Africa and the Middle East, including boys and men, are opposed to FGM, indicating a change in global attitudes toward FGM.

However, data also shows that progress against FGM remains slow and woefully off track to meet Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ending the practice by 2030. “Female Genital Mutilation: A Global Concern,” the most up-to-date compilation of statistics on FGM, states that the most significant numbers are in African countries, accounting for 144 million cases, followed by 80 million in Asia and 6 million in the Middle East, with more estimated in smaller practicing communities and countries of migration elsewhere in the world.

Additionally, according to the report, other factors are hindering the progress towards eradication in some countries and regions. UNICEF stated that Somalia and Sudan face the challenge of addressing widespread FGM amid conflict and population growth. Likewise, climate shocks, disease, and food insecurity are barriers to reliably delivering programs to support girls in Ethiopia, though it has consistently made progress on the issue.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell asserted that FGM harms girls’ bodies, dims their futures and endangers their lives, saying:

We’re also seeing a worrying trend that more girls are subjected to the practice at younger ages, many before their fifth birthday. That further reduces the window to intervene. We need to strengthen the efforts of ending this harmful practice.

UNICEF ended the report, calling on leaders and communities to redouble their efforts and take measures to end gender discrimination and inequality.