In some countries, men oppose female genital mutilation at a higher rate than women ― even though it is considered an act of violence against women.
In Guinea – the country with the second highest prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world – 38 percent of men are against the practice, compared to just 21 percent of women, according to new data from Unicef.
The same is true in Sierra Leone.
There, 40 percent of boys and men want the practice to end, compared with 23 percent of girls and women.
In 11 out of 18 countries with available data, Unicef found that men are either in agreement with women or are more opposed to the practice.
The problem is, a widespread taboo around the topic has led to a misunderstanding of how much opposition there is.
“A lot of the opinions on wanting to end the practice are often held in private,” Francesca Moneti, Unicef’s senior child protection specialist, told The Huffington Post. “It’s not discussed out loud.”
Female genital mutilation is a procedure that involves the total or partial removal of ― or injury to ― the external female genitalia for no medical benefit, which can cause prolonged bleeding, infertility or death.
The World Health Organization considers it a violation of women’s rights.
Still, at least 200 million girls and women have undergone the practice.
Another central issue is that women feel obliged to uphold the tradition and aren’t aware of how many men are actually against it.
“Women overestimate how many men support the practice,” Moneti said. “Women would carry out FGM as their duty, for social acceptance ― yet they overestimated, for every single country we had data for, how many men supported it.”
But when men are increasingly included in conversations about FGM, their opposition to the practice grows, according to Moneti.
“Historically FGM was seen as women’s business, and men, when asked, would say it’s not their business,” Moneti said. “Now that it’s in the public discussion, they are aware of the harms of cutting, and in some countries, you now have more men against it.”
“We’re seeing young boys are increasingly taking a visible stand,” Moneti said. “They’re saying they’re happy to marry women who are not cut.”
And older men who have spoken out against FGM are becoming more aware of its harmful impact on women and girls’ lives, Moneti added.
More people speaking out against FGM is also key to getting governments to pass legislation to end the practice.
In Gambia, for instance, it was only after communities began abandoning the practice, with public media declarations, that the president finally passed legislation to ban it.
“If the people’s support for FGM is still very strong socially, it will be hard for government to pass legislation, let alone enforce it,” Moneti said. “But if opposition to the practice is strong, it will be easy to have legislation implemented ― and for people to report cases to the government.”
However, Guinea is also proof that governments alone can’t end the practice without the support of changing social norms. Female genital mutilation is illegal in Guinea, yet 97 percent of girls are still cut, and the practice is actually on the rise.
Many girls there still feel overwhelming social pressure and fear that not getting cut could cause them to lose out on marriage prospects, according to a recent U.N. report.
“The most important factor for social change is people seeing and hearing about others who want to end it,” Moneti said. “Most people decide against it once they know others will go along, or won’t criticize them.”