FEBRUARY 6 is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is practised in at least 28 countries in Africa; more than three million girls in Africa are at risk for FGM/C every year, data from the Population Reference Bureau shows.
Girls are usually cut between age 4 and 12, typically by traditional excisors, and sometimes by medical professionals – particularly in Egypt and Sudan. The cut is linked with serious physical and mental health risks for women and girls, particularly those who have undergone more severe forms of the procedure.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), FGM/C can be linked to increased complications in childbirth and even maternal deaths, as well as severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus, infection, infertility, cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, and psychological and sexual problems.
When we look at the trends, however, the practice is declining in the majority of African countries where the rite is found. The biggest decline has been in Liberia, where there has been a 43-percentage point difference in prevalence between older women (age 45-49) and younger girls (age 15-19), according to latest Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data.
Large drops have also been recorded in Kenya (34.2 percentage points), Burkina Faso (31.6), Sierra Leone (26.3) and Nigeria (19.3).
The decline has mostly been driven by concerted efforts by governments, women’s organisations and human rights groups to end the practice, especially over the past two decades. Of the 27 countries in this data set, 23 now have laws banning or restricting the practice. The exceptions are Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
But the curious thing is that two of those countries that do not have any explicit national laws banning FGM/C – Liberia and Sierra Leone – still managed to record some of the biggest declines among the countries that practice it. How did it happen, even in the absence of a legislative push?
Part of the answer has to do with the civil wars in both countries, which raged in the 1990s.
FGM/C takes place as part of initiation into secret societies, in Liberia the women’s secret society is called the Sande Society, and in Sierra Leone, it is known as the Bunde Society. When girls are secluded in the bush to be initiated, they are not just taught “women skills” like hygiene, cooking and taking care of a husband.
The societies have a political tone, and are sometimes so powerful that membership is necessary for social, economic, or political influence in villages across the country.
As the name implies, it is taboo to speak publicly about cutting; members of the Sande swear an oath to never speak about the society at all, never mind its rituals.
The civil war destroyed many social structures, with traditional village life often coming to a complete standstill. This presumably led to a (temporary) diminishing in FGM, though not its eradication.
What has markedly changed, however, is that the age for initiation is now much lower than before. In the past girls were eight to 14 years old when cut, whereas now many girls are initiated between the ages of three and seven. Perhaps that is why they are not (yet) showing up in the data.