Human Rights Council
16 June 2014
The Human Rights Council this morning held a high-level panel discussion on the identification of good practices in combating female genital mutilation, hearing from Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chantal Compaore, First Lady of Burkina Faso, and other distinguished panellists.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Pillay said that female genital mutilation was a form of gender-based discrimination and that it violated the right to be free from torture, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and, because it was often performed on children, it also represented a violation of children’s rights. This harmful and degrading practice could be eradicated and there were encouraging signs of it at national, regional and international levels. The High Commissioner stressed the importance of concerted efforts by national and international stakeholders to address this urgent issue.
The numbers of women and girls undergoing female genital mutilation were alarming and this situation should be of concern to everyone, said Nakpa Polo, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Togo and the Panel Moderator. This panel aimed to look into progress achieved as well as outstanding challenges, and to find best practices in eliminating female genital mutilation.
Chantal Compaore, First Lady of Burkina Faso, said that in three decades of action, many measures had proven to be effective, such as the setting up of institutional frameworks, bringing together religious leaders, advocacy through high-level meetings and ensuring that female genital mutilation was part of the international agenda. Equally important were grass-roots strategies which ensured that communities were on board in an effort to abandon the practice, and the various measures implemented though the educational system.
Mariame Lamizana, President of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practice, said that borders of customs and traditions did not coincide with political borders and that was why there was a need for regional strategies, which should be supported by actions at the community level. International organizations should support grass roots and community programmes, improve coordination at a regional level, support through policy guidance and enhance the visibility of this issue internationally.
Liz Ditchburn, Policy Director, Department for International Development, United Kingdom, said that guidance and tools were necessary to support comprehensive and preventative action. The legislative framework and prosecutions, while important, constituted only a part of what had to be done. Community-led information and the involvement of the media and non-governmental organizations were crucial, as was research to understand the mechanisms and the strategies that worked in order to be more effective.
Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health Research, World Health Organization, said that the focus was on research into what worked in the field and how the good practices could be replicated elsewhere. It was also important to develop clinical guidelines for management of the health needs of women who had already undergone the procedure, with a special attention on management of its acute and chronic complications. Legal action was needed too and States should adopt, implement and reinforce specific legislation on female genital mutilation; for this to happen, there was a need to work with schools, media and Parliaments to work on change.
Nafissatou Diop, Coordinator, UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, said that the goal was to accelerate the abandonment of the practice in one generation and the programme revisited the core values of cultures and how those values were expressed in practice. Public declarations were a way to make visible what was invisible; the people changing, families that did no longer want to cut their girls. The role of the international community was to continue to strengthen and expand the network of support for ending the practice.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers stressed that gender inequality and power imbalances among genders were factors underlying female genital mutilation and agreed that culture, tradition and religion must not be used to justify it. The experience showed that not every approach was effective in every community and every country; the real driving force to ensure that efforts to combat female genital mutilation were sustainable and lasting, were the people of the community. In addition to instituting a total ban on practice, States should work with traditional and religious leaders at all levels and should complement legal measures with investment in education and awareness campaign activities targeting the communities. The level of zero tolerance must be reached.
Speaking in the discussion were Ethiopia on behalf of the African Group, Egypt on behalf of the Arab Group, Ireland, Morocco, Italy, New Zealand, United States, Algeria, Sierra Leone, Gabon, African Union, European Union, Sudan, France, Norway, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Togo, Egypt, Finland, Australia, the Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Indonesia and Portugal.
Plan International and Centre for Inquiry also took the floor.
The Council is holding a full day of meetings today. At 12.30 p.m., the Council will resume its clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers, and on human rights of migrants, started on Friday, 13 June, to be followed by a clustered interactive discussion with the Chairperson of the Working Group on discrimination against women and with the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.
BAUDELAIRE NDONG ELLA, President of the Human Rights Council, opening the high-level panel discussion, said that it aimed to provide an exchange on the progress achieved in combating female genital mutilation, identify best practices and challenges and review national, regional and international initiatives to eradicate it.
NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her opening statement, said that female genital mutilation of young women and girls was widespread in several regions in the world. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, in 29 countries with the highest prevalence rate, more than 125 million women and girls had been subjected to female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation was a form of gender-based discrimination and violence. It violated the right to be free from torture, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and because it was often performed on children, it also represented a violation of children’s rights. This harmful and degrading practice was not based on any valid premise and had no health benefits; on the contrary, it generated profoundly damaging, irreversible and life-long physical damage. Female genital mutilation was a form of control over women and justifications for it were linked to cultural practices; it enjoyed the support of both men and women where it was widely practiced, and those who did not undergo the practice faced condemnation, harassment and ostracism.
Female genital mutilation could be eradicated and there were encouraging signs of this at the national, regional and international levels, including the General Assembly December 2012 resolution on intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation. Several States had adopted legislation and policies to end the practice; where laws had been accompanied by culturally sensitive education and public awareness outreach, it had declined. Where political and religious leaders championed the fight against female genital mutilation, mind-sets had rapidly changed and support for the practice declined. Based on the current annual decrease of one per cent, the target of reducing by half the prevalence of female genital mutilation would not be achieved until 2074; 60 years was too long to wait. When female genital mutilation was eliminated, communities were healthier. Freed of the terrible pain and trauma that it created, girls and women were more able to develop their talents and use their skills. Economic, social and political development could surge forward. Addressing female genital mutilation was urgent and it required concerted efforts by national and international stakeholders.
Statements by the Panellists
NAKPA POLO, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Togo, Moderator, said that the figures provided by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund and other specialized United Nations agencies estimated that the numbers of women and girls undergoing female genital mutilation were alarming. Despite efforts, this practice was still prevalent. It was clear that this was a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, violating the right to health, non-discrimination, and the right to be women and girls. The situation should be of concern to everyone. This panel aimed to look into progress achieved as well as outstanding challenges, and to find best practices in eliminating female genital mutilation.
CHANTAL COMPAORE, First Lady of Burkina Faso, said that female genital mutilation as a practice was well-known throughout the continent. Prevalence had dropped as a result of awareness raising campaigns. In Burkina Faso, the health and demographic study conducted in 2010 showed that there was a downwards trend. It was very important to keep up the pressure through awareness raising campaigns and dissuasion measures. On root causes, these could be found in tradition, customs, or religion. Cutting had been something that had been taken on board by the communities, that they went along with, fearing exclusion if they did not. Female genital mutilation allowed in theory to control a woman’s sexuality. In three decades of action, very many policies had proven to be effective. There had been institutional frameworks set up, such as committees, associations, youth networks, and bringing together religious leaders, among others. There had been advocacy through high-level meetings, ensuring that female genital mutilation was part of the international agenda. At the grass roots level, there had been strategies which had ensured the bringing on board of the communities in an effort to abandon the practice. Education also meant introducing female genital mutilation modules within the educational system. Support for victims also had to be thought of.
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Coordinator of the Committee’s Working Group on the joint CEDAW-CRC General Recommendation / Comment on harmful practices, said that female genital mutilation in the context of child rights should be a zero tolerance practice. It was definitely a deprivation of the rights of children, of girls, to education and to health, in a procedure that did not have any health benefits and that caused trauma. The practice was legitimized by communities and families, unfortunately, as tradition. It interfered with girls’ freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Pregnancy and childbirth were natural events, but were risky, and could cause death because of female genital mutilation. The Committee on the Rights of the Child advocated that girls should have equal access to measures to abandon this practice, which affected their health and well-being. Unfortunately, there were still gaps which existed both in law and practice.
Much had been accomplished, but there were still problems and these were very much connected with inadequacy in addressing issues of gender equality, and non-discrimination, and upholding human rights principles in national laws. Changes in law had to be accompanied by access to services and a coordinated approach, while coordinated messages of zero tolerance for female genital mutilation were also important. There was a trend towards medicalization of female genital mutilation; all staff had to observe legal enactments and if they did not, there had to be severe penalties.
NAKPA POLO, Panel Moderator, recalled that female genital mutilation constituted a health problem and a zero tolerance level should be aimed at. Regional instruments were important when attempting to protect the human rights of women and girls. Could Ms. Lamizana share a regional perspective on social and cultural rules and standards that justified mutilation and ways to combat them? What role did regional institutions play in this regard?
MARIAME LAMIZANA, President of Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practice, said that it was important to consider the situation of migrant populations. Borders of customs and traditions did not coincide with political borders and it was very difficult for a family or a community to refuse them by rejecting these practices, there was therefore a resistance to abandoning practices. Thus strategies had to be regional and address regional actors. Regional strategies should be supported by community actions, such as holding community discussions, and ensuring that strategies were based on community practices. The support of international organizations in supporting grass roots and community programmes, capacity building, improving coordination at a regional level, and support through policy guidance to ensure that female mutilation could be introduced into regional strategies, the legal framework, and engaging States and the international community to enhance the visibility of this issue were other measures that could be adopted.
NAKPA POLO, Panel Moderator, said that female genital mutilation was now a practice in countries where migrants lived. Concerning the goal of the United Kingdom to eliminate female genital mutilation, Ms. Polo asked about the prevalence of this practice among migrant communities in Europe and its impact on rights violations.
LIZ DITCHBURN, Policy Director, Department for International Development, United Kingdom, said that a comprehensive approach was necessary in order to make a difference. Recognising that diaspora communities in the United Kingdom were at risk and understanding their relation with their countries of origin was important. In the United Kingdom the numbers were different from those at the global level, but it was difficult to obtain good data. More work would be done to get a more accurate picture. Comprehensive action was important and prevention was a fundamental part of the work. A wide range of professionals should be aware of the risks and the need for prevention, and guidance and tools were necessary in this regard. The legislative framework and prosecutions were important, but constituted only a part of what had to be done. Community-led information and the involvement of the media were crucial. Mainstream national media had become interested in the issue and had started to raise the profile of this problem. Non-governmental and civil society organizations were also leading the way and the Government’s support was important. Research was important to understand the mechanisms and the strategies that worked in order to be more effective.
Affirming the agreement on the need to prevent female genital mutilation, NAKPA POLO, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Togo and Panel Moderator, asked about efforts of the World Health Organization to support women who had already undergone the procedure, and management of chronic health problems arising from this practice.
MARLEEN TEMMERMAN, Director, Department of Reproductive Health Research, World Health Organization, said that the World Health Organization supported the efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation through research into what works in the field and how the good practices could be replicated elsewhere. In addition to prevention, another area of action was supporting the health needs of women and girls who had already undergone the procedure. WHO was developing clinical guidelines for medical staff on different types of female genital mutilation and their management, and in particular the management of complications, both acute and chronic ones. For a doctor, it was not always easy to recognize whether a girl was cut and it was not easy to respond to parents who requested the procedure to be performed on their girls; today 18 per cent of all the mutilations were done by medical practitioners and this number was on the increase. Further priority was to strengthen monitoring and accountability because many countries lacked data collection systems. Data on female genital mutilation must be collected routinely. Legal action was needed too and States needed to adopt, implement and reinforce specific legislation on female genital mutilation; for this to happen, there was a need to work with schools, media and Parliaments to work on change.
NAFISSATOU DIOP, Coordinator, UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, said that the Joint Programme began in 2008 and the goal was to accelerate the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting, in one generation. Governments were supported in a coordinated and comprehensive approach. The programme revisited the core values of cultures and how those values were expressed in practice. Female genital mutilation/cutting was re-categorised from a cultural tradition to a harmful practice. Public declarations were a way to make visible what was invisible; the people changing, families that no longer wanted to cut their girls. There had also been the enactment and enforcement of laws and Kenya, Uganda and Guinea Bissau had enacted such laws. Moving forward, the international community’s role was to continue to strengthen and expand the network of support for ending female genital mutilation/cutting. The more they saw the faces of the people leading the movement, the more others would join the chorus that was emerging.
Ethiopia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said that regional instruments in Africa were contributing to the fight against female genital mutilation, and thanks to the concerted efforts of several stakeholders the incidence was decreasing. The African Group also reiterated its conviction that female genital mutilation was among the most barbaric violations of the rights of women and reaffirmed its commitment to combat this practice. Egypt, on behalf of the Arab Group, said that Arab countries experienced varying levels of prevalence of female genital mutilation, and all were committed to work to end this practise through implementing laws criminalizing it and through social awareness raising at different levels and community health campaigns, which had resulted in a decrease of prevalence. This practise had nothing to do with religion. Ireland said that the practice of female genital mutilation was a serious violation of women and girls’ rights. While it was a challenging issue, there was an underlying factor: gender inequality and power imbalances among genders. Ireland was pursuing a twin-track approach, including grass roots organizations and legislative support. Ireland asked the panel how to intensify efforts to ensure change at the community-level.
Morocco said that female genital mutilation was a deplorable violation of the rights of women. Media must play a capital role in fighting this practice, information and educational programmes were also necessary. Providing for victim protection and international support were also important. Italy said that since the mid-1980s, Italy had provided support to efforts to combat female genital mutilation; the international community had the opportunity to eliminate female genital mutilation and Italy was ready to continue to work with partners to this end. New Zealand said that action at multiple levels should be undertaken to combat the practice of female genital mutilation. In New Zealand the practice had been made illegal in 1996 though, in 1998, a large part of people in vulnerable communities had continued to support the practice. Ten years later this number had been significantly reduced. New Zealand’s approach was community based, focused on behavioural change and community action.
United States said that its recent review of best practice to combat female genital mutilation had demonstrated that not every approach was effective in every community and every country; the real driving force to ensure that those efforts were sustainable were the people of the community and education about the practice. Algeria said there was a consensus on the need to prevent and punish the practice of female genital mutilation, which could not be justified by any cultural arguments or particularities. In Sierra Leone, female genital mutilation was deeply rooted and linked to initiation of women into a secret womanhood society, the Bondo; this secrecy made it hard to fight the practice. Gabon said female genital mutilation persisted in many countries, particularly in Africa. States must attack root causes of this phenomenon, including though offering economic incentives for practitioners to stop. The African Union said that in view of the serious damage caused by practising female genital mutilation, the African Union had put fighting all harmful traditional practices at the top of its political and social priorities and was continuing to collaborate with different partners to identify ways to eradicate these practices. Plan International recommended that States adopt legislation and institute a total ban on the practice of female genital mutilation. States should also work with traditional and religious leaders at all levels to prevent the practice from being performed on children; investing in education was key. Centre for Inquiry said that female genital mutilation stood in diametric opposition to human rights, including children’s rights, and encouraged States to complement the laws with education and information and awareness campaign activities to educate the communities; culture, tradition and religion must not be used to justify female genital mutilation.
CHANTAL COMPAORE, First Lady of Burkina Faso, said that with a view to intensifying the struggle and making greater progress in fighting female genital mutilation, some recommendations included: at the national level, grass-roots initiatives should be intensified to ensure there was capacity-building of individuals. Administrative practices had to be targeted. There also ought to be a greater focus on education for young people on female genital mutilation and international instruments needed to be better disseminated. At the international level it was also important to focus on regional and national networks, working together to intensify efforts, and ensure that they were better known and adapted to realities.
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Coordinator of the Committee’s Working Group on the joint CEDAW-CRC General Recommendation / Comment on harmful practices, said that all knew that some traditional practices were harmful and could cause death, illness and life-long suffering. Asking for the consent of women in this case became a somewhat redundant aspect as most of the time this particular practice was forced on the girl or the woman. Due to lack of awareness or education, they may not even be aware of the consequences. It was not a question of consent or asking. In the case of children too, it was now said that children had to participate in decisions that affected their lives.
MARIAM LAMIZANA, President, Inter-African Committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children, said synergies should be established between international and regional organizations, to establish a better strategy and to coordinate activities to support programmes for the elimination of female genital mutilation. There should be support for joint initiatives for programmes in the field, such as that of the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Children’s Fund, and a strengthening of advocacy amongst States in order to encourage them to adopt legislation. National and regional research should also be encouraged in order to monitor the effects of the campaign against female genital mutilation.
LIZ DITCHBURN, Policy Director, Department for International Development, United Kingdom, said there was striking consensus concerning not only the need to eliminate this practice but on the sort of things that should happen. Ms. Ditchburn said she was sensing from the panel that this could be achieved. For those in a position to support the international system, there was a joint programme which needed funding. The United Kingdom was supporting a programme in Sudan and further investments could be made on research and monitoring systems. Legislation alone was not enough and there were examples of persistent practices despite legislative reforms. Ms. Ditchburn emphasised the importance of education, awareness campaigns, and the need to work with men and boys.
NAFISSATOU DIOP, Coordinator, UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, highlighted some results from the external evaluation conducted last year of the 15 countries supported by the joint programme. National policy and legislation had been extended to 12 out of the 15 countries supported; efforts had also been made to stress the issue in the international agenda; civil society and community-led interventions had led to public commitments by communities to abandon the practice. Clear changes had taken place in the 15 countries with support of the joint programme, which had now been extended to 17 countries, however, much more needed to be done. Among other recommendations, Ms. Diop highlighted the strengthening of Government commitment as well maintaining the support and involvement of non-governmental organizations, addressing cross-community and cross-border dynamics as well as enhancing regional cooperation. The support of the international community had not been involved in the long term planning and strategies; better reporting to donors, regional and subnational institutions, as well as relevant human rights treaty bodies had to be strengthened.
MARLEEN TEMMERMAN, Director, Department of Reproductive Health Research, World Health Organization, said that they could not neglect the millions of women and girls with new and chronic medical conditions as a consequence of female genital mutilation. The need for better data collection and registration was crucial, in order to effectively measure the impact of interventions at multiple levels. The medicalization of the procedure should not take place, so it was necessary to speak to health service providers and doctors to ensure mutilations were not practiced in medical facilities. National action plans based on multi-sectorial approaches should also be promoted. It was important to work together with non-governmental organizations to end this practice. The issue should remain on the political agenda, as well as in that on the agenda of partners, donors and civil society representatives. Support from communities and local role models was also important. Health was an important entry point: female genital mutilation was harmful regardless of its motivation, stressed Ms. Temmerman, noting that it had also previously been practiced in Europe.
European Union had in place a new action plan to combat female genital mutilation at all levels and was providing 3.7 million Euro to Member States for awareness raising and over 11 million Euros for non-governmental organizations to support victims. Sudan criminalized female genital mutilation and had in place a national campaign to change mentality in order to eradicate this practice which involved community leaders, artists and thinkers. France was among the first countries which had criminalized the practice and had initiated in 2014 three complementary actions to raise awareness on female genital mutilation and to fight and prevent it. Norway said it would accelerate its efforts against female genital mutilation including through increasing resources and emphasized that the success rate of legislation was dependent on other measures that accompanied it, including the non-judicial ones. United Kingdom was committed to ending the inhumane practice of female genital mutilation and, while welcoming the leadership of the United Nations, expressed hope that the Human Rights Council should stay engaged and do more to eradicate the practice. Switzerland stressed the need to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to combating female genital mutilation and asked what could be done to improve access to justice for women and girls victims of this practice. Togo had a number of initiatives in place which changed mind sets and reduced the rate of female genital mutilation in the country to two per cent in 2012. Egypt was one of the countries most affected by this phenomenon and had geared full political commitment to fight it and adopted unambiguous legislation to criminalize it. Egypt asked about areas in which international cooperation was most effective and how could it be used to support national programmes.
Finland said that making progress and defining good practices in eliminating female genital mutilation had to be a top priority. Female genital mutilation was a severe form of violence against women and girls and hence a human rights violation. Australia said female genital mutilation was never justified and would never be tolerated in Australia under any circumstances. Its domestic efforts to prevent the practice included collaborative cross-sector action. Republic of Congo said that despite intensified efforts to combat this scourge at the national, regional and international levels, it persisted in certain regions of the world. There had been cases reported and measures had been taken to ban the practice in the country.
Denmark said that in addition to unbearable pain, women and girls that went through female genital mutilation faced a life wrecked with health problems. Women and girls were often denied access to services which could help them with these problems. Portugal stressed its strong commitment to preventing and fighting all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls, embodied in law and several public policies, and the active engagement of civil society. Experience showed that close involvement of migrant communities concerned was key to a successful outcome. Indonesia had continued to increase its efforts to address harmful practices, particularly against women and girls, such as female genital mutilation. The Government would continue to conduct advocacy and awareness-raising programmes, and facilitate national dialogue with all stakeholders.
CHANTAL COMPAORE, First Lady of Burkina Faso, thanked all the participants and congratulated the organizers of the panel for the high quality of the discussion.
NAFISSATOU DIOP, Coordinator, UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, welcomed efforts by the international community under the leadership of Ms. Compaore and efforts towards a General Assembly resolution. It was now necessary to see this engagement and efforts at the relevant agencies and the Government level. Ms. Diop thanked donors for the long-term contribution to efforts against female genital mutilation.
LIZ DITCHBURN, Policy Director, Department for International Development, United Kingdom, said it was possible to achieve the goal of eliminating this practice by working together. Ms. Ditchburn also commended the work and personal leadership displayed by Ms. Compaore and said that it was now up to others to show such commitment.
MARIAM LAMIZANA, President, Inter-African Committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children, believed that keeping a good record of successful interventions was needed, as well as the interaction between Governments and civil society. Ms. Lamizana also thanked the Inter-African Commission and the Council for expressing such an interest in this common cause, as well as the partners of the Inter-African Commission for their support.
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Coordinator of the Committee’s Working Group on the joint CEDAW-CRC General Recommendation / Comment on harmful practices, said in her closing remarks that there were many examples of education programmes aiming to combat female genital mutilation and stressed that changing attitudes was at the heart of changing any practice. Unfortunately, many educational programmes were not based on actual knowledge of the cultural practices and attitudes that prevailed; in order to change behaviour, that behaviour must be better understood and known.
MARLEEN TEMMERMAN, Director, Department of Reproductive Health Research, World Health Organization, in her closing remarks said that on the possibility of including combatting female genital mutilation in the post-2015 development agenda, it was a development and human rights issue; she reiterated the importance of including the comprehensive issue of sexual and reproductive health in the post-2015 development agenda.
NAKPA POLO, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Togo and Panel Moderator, in her closing remarks stressed that despite the growing awareness of the harmful practice of female genital mutilation, figures showed that women and girls throughout the world continued to be affected in large numbers. It was important that everyone said no to the practice and in this regard, men had a key role to play in the struggle to abandon such a violent traditional practice. Adopting legislation and monitoring its implementation was crucial and should be accompanied by awareness and education campaigns. There was also a need to keep close contact and bring into the discussion religious and traditional leaders, opinion makers and victims themselves. The level of zero tolerance must be reached.
BAUDELAIRE NDONG ELLA, President of the Human Rights Council, said that panellists had allowed for a look at the different facets of female genital mutilation and its impact on populations where this practice was widespread. The panellists had expressed the hope that the fight against female genital mutilation would be intensified and that a zero tolerance level would be reached.
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