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Addressing the health impact of Female Genital Mutilation costing $1.4 billion annually

Each year 6 February marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This year to highlight the on going FGM crisis the UN have released new modelling which expose the immense costs of treating the health impacts of FGM – amounting to US$1.4 billion globally per year.

Female genital mutilation, also called ‘cutting’, involves the removal of some or all of the external parts of a girl’s genitalia (World Health Organization). It is dangerous, illegal and can cause pain, infection and in some cases even death. As a girl grows up, she may suffer complications in menstruation and childbirth as well as psychological trauma.

However, FGM is still widely practiced. Each year approximately 3.6 million women and girls suffer this cruel practice in over 30 countries. The UN estimates over 200 million women and girls having undergone FGM globally for cultural and non-medical reasons.

Common reasons cited for the procedure are social acceptance, religion, hygiene, preservation of virginity, marriageability and enhancement of male sexual pleasure. The UN Children’s fund (UNICEF) predicts that if there is no reduction in the practice, the number of girls women affected annually will rise to 6.6 million by 2050.

The figures released by the UN show that individual countries are devoting nearly 10 percent of their yearly expenditure on treating the health implications of FGM; with some countries expenditure being as high as 30 percent.

Speaking on the reports findings, Dr Ian Askew, Director of WHO’s Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research highlighted that more investment is “urgently needed” to end FGM and the suffering that results from it. He described FGM as:

“not only a catastrophic abuse of human rights that significantly harms the physical and mental health of millions of girls and women; it is also a drain on a country’s vital economic resources”

Askew concludes that more investment is “urgently needed” to end FGM and the suffering that results from it.

The procedure is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and 15-years-old, and the impacts on their health and well-being can be immediate—from infections, bleeding, or psychological trauma—to chronic health conditions that can occur throughout life. These complications lead to resources being directed towards health care and away from other state priorities.

Speaking to IOHR, Holger Postulart, Secretary-general of the Global Alliance for Human Rights and Health said:

“As long as FGM persists, Gender Equality will remain an illusion.”

UNICEF has also reported that around a quarter of survivors, roughly 52 million women and girls, were cut by health care providers in what is known as medicalised FGM. Despite the name, there is no medical justification for the practice and, even when the procedure is performed in a sterile environment by a healthcare provider, there is risk of health consequences immediately and later in life.

The death of a 12-year-old girl in Egypt last month highlighted the dangers of medicalized FGM.
According to UNICEF, although the Egyptian authorities banned FGM in 2008, it is still common there and in Sudan. Agency analysis indicates that medicalized FGM is increasing due to the misguided belief that the dangers of FGM are medical, rather than a fundamental violation of a girl’s rights.

Under any circumstances, FGM violates the right to health, the right to be free from violence, the right to life and physical integrity, the right to non-discrimination, and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director echoed this sentiment by saying:

“Doctor-sanctioned mutilation is still mutilation. Trained health-care professionals who perform FGM violate girls’ fundamental rights, physical integrity and health,”

Despite the rise in medicalised FGM, their is still hope that abandonment of the procedure could still be realised. Since 1997, global efforts have led to 26 countries in Africa and the Middle East enacting legislation against FGM, while 33 other countries with migrant populations from nations where it is practiced have also followed suit.

UNICEF also report that the proportion of girls and women in high-prevalence countries who want FGM stopped has doubled over the past two decades.

This led Dr. Christina Pallitto, a scientist at WHO to conclude:

“If countries invest to end female genital mutilation, they can prevent their girls from undergoing this harmful practice and promote the health, rights and well-being of women and girls,”

For more information on FGM – including how to get help if you are at risk – please visit FORWARD, an African women-led organisation working to end violence against women and girls. Their website can be found here

You can also watch IOHR TV speaking with Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the fabulous Executive Director of FORWARD, here:

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