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Female Circumcision Declining in Africa, but 30 Million Girls Still at Risk

Despite laws prohibiting it, FGC is widely practiced in Ethiopia and other African countries according to UNICEF. ©UNICEF/Getachew

A new report by UNICEF finds that the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), which started centuries ago, has been declining in Africa. But even where laws now forbid it, circumcising girls by removing part or all of their external genitalia continues. In this century some 30 million girls remain at risk.

Many organizations, including Aid for Africa member Tostan, whose name means “breakthrough,” have been working to end this practice, which can cause death, puts mother and child at risk during birth, and leads to additional chronic health problems for a woman.

Why does the practice persist?  Molly Melching, the executive director of Tostan, which has been working since the 1970s to end FGC and child/forced marriage in West Africa, explained at a recent meeting that genital cutting is an entrenched tradition that is society-wide in many African countries.  Many women are unaware of the grave risks and believe that their daughters will not be marriageable without it.  The result: Ending genital cutting by narrowly focusing only on the practice has not worked. For social cohesion, it takes an entire community to make the decision, according to Melching. 

People declaring the abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage in communities in Mali. ©Tostan

So when women, men, young children, and teenagers from 30 villages in the West African nation of Mali gathered on the banks of the Niger river this past June to publicly declare the abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage in their communities, there was much to celebrate.  Similar declarations were made in May by 92 communities in Guinea and in June in Senegal and The Gambia by more than 280 communities.

Tostan had worked with members of these communities to help them better understand their basic rights, the rights of  women, and a woman’s right to make decisions affecting her health. Using  storytelling, theater, and other shared events, communities were able to come together to discuss democracy, human rights, and health and make shared decisions on genital cutting and other issues.

The UNICEF study found that where FGC is practiced, most women think it should end.  Even so, many chose the traditional path. With 30 million girls still at risk, there is still much to do. 

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