16 June 2014
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am glad to welcome you to this high-level discussion of a shocking and important topic: the genital mutilation of young women and girls.
Female genital mutilation is widespread in several regions of the world. According to UNICEF, in the 29 countries with the highest prevalence rate – so not even counting the others – more than 125 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM. And as many as 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing this practice over the next decade, if current trends persist.
FGM is a form of gender-based discrimination and violence. It is a violation of the right to physical and mental integrity. It violates the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Because it is almost always practised on young children, it is also a violation of the rights of the child. FGM violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health. And when it results in the death of the person who is mutilated, it violates the right to life.
This harmful and degrading practice is not based on any valid premise. FGM has no health benefits. On the contrary, it generates profoundly damaging, irreversible and life-long physical damage. It also increases the risk of neonatal death for babies born to women who have survived it.
Like the practice of child marriage — which will also be discussed during this session of the Human Rights Council — female genital mutilation represents a way to exercise control over women, and perpetuates harmful gender roles. The practice may be traditionally considered necessary to raise a girl “properly” and to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. It may be embedded in coming-of-age rituals, thus becoming an important part of the cultural identity of girls and women. Justifications for FGM are also linked to what are considered to be the characteristics of a ‘proper’ wife. It is believed that the practice preserves a girl’s or woman’s virginity or restrains sexual desire, thereby preventing sexual behaviour that is considered immoral or inappropriate. Where FGM is widely practised, it is usually supported by both men and women, and anyone not undergoing the practice may face condemnation, harassment, and ostracism.
Economic factors can also play a significant role in contributing to the persistence of female genital mutilation. In many settings, the families of girls who have been mutilated will receive a better bride price, because the young women concerned are assumed to be more submissive and less likely to seek their own sexual pleasure. This highlights the dimension of psychological and emotional abuse of this practise, and its coercive control over women and girls’ sexuality.
But FGM can be eradicated, and there are encouraging signs of this at national, regional and international level.
The General Assembly’s resolution on intensifying global efforts for the elimination of FGM, in December 2012, and the Human Rights Council’s resolution that mandated this panel in November 2013, highlight the increased commitment of the international community to ending this harmful practice. In addition, in 2010 the UN Commission on the Status of Women urged member States to enact and enforce legislation to prohibit FGM, develop social and psychological support services and care, and take measures to assist women and girls who have been subjected to this type of violence.
Several states have adopted legislation and policies to end female genital mutilation. And where laws have been accompanied by culturally sensitive education and public awareness outreach, the practise has declined. UNFPA has estimated that globally, the prevalence of FGM declined by 5 percent between 2005 and 2010.
It is interesting to observe that communities that have adopted collective processes of decision-making are much more likely to abandon the practise of mutilating women. There are also several examples of effective programmes to transform cultural norms through targeted community and national-level actions, including the possibility for older women to question the traditions in which they grew up.
Importantly, where political and religious leaders have championed the fight against FGM, mind-sets have rapidly changed, and support for the practice has declined. In this regard, I would like to pay particular tribute to the leadership role of the Honorable Madame Chantal Compaoré, the First Lady of Burkina Faso.
Based on the current annual decrease of 1%, the target of reducing by half the prevalence of FGM will be not be achieved until 2074. And sixty years is too long to wait.
When FGM is eradicated, communities are healthier. Freed of the terrible pain and trauma that FGM creates, girls and women are more able to develop their talents and use their skills. Economic, social and political development can surge forward.
Addressing FGM is urgent, and it requires concerted efforts by national and international stakeholders. Today’s high level panel offers us an important opportunity to discuss ways to expand good practices and address these challenges. I look forward to your discussion.