|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on Global Efforts to End Female Genital Mutilation
“I feel like they stole something from me,” said a young Guinean survivor of female genital mutilation today, as she calmly recounted the experience of being cut by a village doctor at the age of five, and appealed strongly for African Governments to take the lead in bringing the dangerous centuries-old practice to an end.
“It’s time to stop talking and go out into the field,” Saran Dioubate told reporters at Headquarters just hours ahead of a concert in the General Assembly Hall featuring United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo. The concert, aimed at raising global awareness of and support for the global efforts to end female genital mutilation, or “female cutting”, is sponsored by the Italian Government, in cooperation with UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
She said that when her great aunt and other older women came to collect her for the operation, even though she had been young, if someone had explained to her what would happen, she would have said “no”. She now knew countless other young women who still lived with the trauma caused by the operation, as well as serious immediate and long-term health consequences, which included severe bleeding, urination problems, infections and childbirth complications.
She said that her mother had not initially given her consent, but she had eventually bowed to family pressure. Even though her experience had been difficult, Ms. Dioubate acknowledged that traditional cultural attitudes towards the practice were changing, and noted that her sister, three years her junior, had not been cut. Still, everyone must keep working, including in Africa, because “this practice has to end”, she declared.
Joining Ms. Diobate at the press conference was Ms. Kidjo, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter from Benin, as well as Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA; Elsa Fornero, Minister of Labour, Social Policies and Gender Equality of Italy; and Cesare Maria Ragaglini, Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations.
Providing stark details about the depth and breadth of the practice, Mr. Osotimehin said it was estimated that from 100 million to 140 million girls and women had undergone some form of genital mutilation or cutting, and at least 3 million girls were at risk of undergoing the procedure every year. “This is a clear violation of their fundamental rights, and it is extremely harmful to their health,” he said, adding that both UNFPA and UNICEF believed the practice could be brought to an end “during our lifetimes”, by working in partnership with Governments and local communities.
He said the UNFPA–UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting was promoting a culturally sensitive, human rights approach to help accelerate the abandonment of the practice. There had been significant progress in that regard, as some 8,000 communities — including in 15 African countries — were no longer carrying out the operation. Two thousand communities had abandoned it in 2011 alone.
Cultural norms were changing and communities were joining together to protect and support their girls and women, he said and thanked those that were helping. At the same time, he echoed the strong calls on development partners and political leaders, urging them to “raise your voices”. Protecting and promoting the health and fundamental rights of women and girls was key to helping them live better lives and to reaching international development goals, he added.
Also speaking passionately about the issue, Ms. Kidjo said: “We Africans can find a solution to this if our leaders are committed to [it].” Indeed, international partners could help, but without political will from African leaders, there would be no progress. While there were countless African traditions that made her proud, there were some — like female cutting and other harmful practices — that required leaders on the continent to step up and take concrete action.
“Cutting a girl takes away her choices and forces her to live a life of pain. I want to see leadership in Africa tackle this and all the problems we have. We have to stop the suffering of our children,” she said. At the same time, she underscored the vital role that should be played by the wider international community, saying: “We spend so much time and money in this great building just talking and doing nothing.” Female genital mutilation was not only about debating data and statistics; it was about people.
“It’s about my sisters. It’s about my continent and it’s about all of us working together,” she said, adding that tonight’s concert was not only to have fun, but to raise the world’s awareness. But, once the music ended, it would be time for everyone to sit down at the table and find a solution. “I won’t rest until the practice is ended,” she said.
Minister Fornero agreed that the event would be important in raising awareness about a huge problem that required “more than just talk and collecting data”. Even as it dealt with its own fiscal woes, the Italian Government was totally committed to the fight to end female genital mutilation, as well as to supporting African development in myriad other ways. She added that the concert also aimed to generate momentum for a resolution currently being drafted for possible action by the General Assembly. She hoped the text would be widely accepted and believed that if adopted, “it will have important consequences.”
Asked what had been the main obstacle to such a resolution over the years, she said that it took time to change beliefs and attitudes. The practice could have been “outlawed”, but if the subsequent legislation never reached people at the community-level or was ignored at the national level, it would have meant nothing. Italy hoped to raise awareness, especially among Western countries, while it worked with African Governments and people. “We should exert gentle pressure for change,” she said.
“Pressure is powerful,” said Ms. Kidjo, picking up that thread. While many countries and communities had abandoned the practice, centuries-old behaviour could not be stopped everywhere in a decade. Changing deeply ingrained social and cultural practices required both time and money. Highlighting the difficulties that might lay ahead, she said that one sensitive issue was that many of the people tasked with cutting were women; it was often their only job and that job gave them income, as well as status in their communities. So the challenge was finding a way to replace those jobs and maintain livelihoods, while not lowering the status of the former practitioners.
To a question about international support, she cautioned against following the traditional pattern of Western Governments telling African Governments “what, when and how to do something”. Dealing effectively with such a sensitive issue meant dealing with every instance on a case-by-case basis. And while African countries must be a part of the solution, the diverse nature of the continent must be taken into consideration, she said, noting, as an example, that people in her country alone spoke 58 different languages. “We have to start looking at Africa as a continent, not a country.”
Finally, she said that tackling poverty would go a long way in helping Africa deal with many of its other challenges. “If you fix poverty and lack of education, so many other things could be addressed. Many of these problems will go down the drain,” she said, calling for a new development paradigm that seriously promoted trade with the continent in a way that created localized wealth and jobs, and led to long-term growth and development.
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