2019 African Union Summit
Statement by Michelle Bachelet United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
11 February 2019
Distinguished Heads of State and Government,
Chairperson and Commissioners of the African Union,
It is an honour to be offered this opportunity to contribute to the advancement of the rights of African women and girls.
Female genital mutilation has wounded hundreds of millions of African women and girls over the generations: an estimated 200 million girls and women alive today are believed to have been subjected to this practise, and six of the seven countries, in which it is most frequently imposed, are on this continent.
In addition to the devastating impact on the girls and women involved, female genital mutilation has had serious costs for African societies.
Today, our colleagues at UNFPA and UNICEF estimate that some 50 million girls in Africa risk suffering genital mutilation before 2030. The African Union’s initiative to end the practise is profoundly commendable. Preventing female genital mutilation is literally life-saving.
African States have championed the struggle against female genital mutilation at national, regional and international levels. There are extraordinary examples of leaders – including many women leaders, such as the First Lady of Burkina Faso, Madame Sika Kaboré – who have brought about tremendous change in their countries.
Work within communities has shown that it is possible to successfully address the system of beliefs, which underpins the practice of female genital mutilation, including its false association with religious requirements or non-existent health benefits. And in several cases, we have seen a very rapid and very welcome decline in the practise.
African women and girls have a right to freedom, equality and dignity. They have a right to be protected, by law and custom, from this painful, often disabling and even lethal practise – whether it is carried out in traditional settings or in clinics. The eradication of female genital mutilation would help free half the population to fully participate in building sustainable development for their nations.
I commend the African leaders – including religious leaders and community and youth leaders, both women and men – who are leading this important and principled struggle. I also commend the African women human rights defenders who, with often very limited resources but determination and creativity, have helped make major strides towards eradication of female genital mutilation. It takes courage to challenge traditional stereotypes. This African Union campaign will boost their work and give it further impetus, helping communities across the continent press forward to achieve the Africa we aspire to in 2063.
Later this year, our Office will organize an expert workshop here in Addis Ababa to contribute to meeting some of the challenges we face. They include the need for more determined enforcement of legislation, extending also to the medical context: it should be absolutely clear that the mutilation of girls in a medical environment is not acceptable. We also need much deeper and more extensive efforts to shift social norms and the underlying attitudes, which promote female genital mutilation, reaching remote rural areas. Without such efforts, prohibiting female genital mutilation may just mean it goes underground, or moves to a neighbouring country, instead of eradicating it.
I welcome and commend the partnership established between the UN and the African Union in 2017 to enhance political commitment, strengthen accountability and to monitor the fulfilment of obligations on issues related to FGM. My Office is committed to doing everything we can to assist you in these endeavours.