02/06/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Ban Female Genital Mutilation

The United Nations General Assembly last December 20 passed, by consensus, a resolution whose final section "calls upon States, the United Nations system, civil society and all stakeholders to continue to observe 6 February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and to use the day to enhance awareness raising campaigns and to take concrete actions against female genital mutilations." This resolution was a hard won victory after years of advocacy by an international coalition, the Ban FGM Campaign. Their target? A persistent practice that happens every day; the World Health Organization estimates that 140 million women have been cut and three million girls undergo the procedure each year. How it's done varies: from a "symbolic nick" to slicing off the full genitalia and sewing the opening shut; razor blades and knives are the instrument. The girl's age also varies but most often the children who are cut are very young.

There is a powerful international consensus that this ancient practice serves no useful purpose whatsoever and that it violates the rights of children and women. Yet it persists stubbornly, in many parts of the world. FGM or FGC (cutting or mutilation are the terms commonly used) is a constant reminder of the complex interplay of culture, religion, and modernity. It is also a vivid example of how far there is to go before our ideals of equality and a decent life for women are translated into reality.

Why does it occur? When asked, the women and men concerned often reply that their religion requires it. FGC is most common in Muslim communities but also occurs in Christian and traditional religious settings. Yet the Bible and the Koran do not call for FGC and theologians, officially (for example through fatwas and declarations), and in scholarly writings and discussions, discount any religious obligation, in any world religion. Local religious leaders may simply ignore the practice, though there are reports that some suggest it is a good thing to do.

People (men and women) may also reply that FGC is an integral part of their culture and heritage. Men will not marry girls who are not cut and the girls (and their families) can be ostracized. Mothers especially are deeply concerned about marriageability of their daughters (and thus grandchildren) and their acceptance within the community. And there are arguments about other benefits including cleanliness. Where FGC is part of initiation rites it marks an important life stage, again part of identity and acceptance.

Dig deeper and a fundamental rationale surfaces: that FGC keeps women from promiscuous behavior (by limiting their sexual pleasure or curbing their desire). It is seen as one way to keep women submissive.

So now there's a UN resolution to ban FGC and an international day to observe the commitment. What comes next? The UN resolution has a moral force but no legal teeth or enforcement capacity.

Efforts to end FGC are at least a century old. It's not always been a popular effort and, to the surprise of horrified feminists and ardent advocates of human rights, many women in affected communities respond angrily to outside intervention. Sensitive and informed support for those opposing the practice is essential. An example is the Senegal based NGO, Tostan, which has decades of experience working with communities and supporting a community consensus to end FGC and other harmful practices. There are unexpected obstacles. The brutal Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonial power in Kenya was fueled by objections to missionary and government efforts to ban FGC. Laws against FGC can drive the practice underground, where it is still more dangerous. Conversely in some places hospitals carry out the practice, so that it is safer but no less a violation of the rights of the girl. The UN resolution is crystal clear in condemning such "medicalization".

Emma Bonino, founder of a long-standing advocacy group, No Peace without Justice, and vice president of the Italian Parliament, welcomed the UN resolution as a vital milestone in an op ed piece . She emphasized, however, that what must happen now is strong support for activists on the ground. Advocates need to challenge parliaments, governments and international bodies, and hold them accountable.
Bonino highlights what to my mind is the critical issue for FGC (and for other topics on women's rights}: the issue has to stay on the top of the priority list or action will languish. "We must never stop pressing them to honor their commitments, never letting them off the hook until female genital mutilation has been once and for all eliminated the world over."
Citing Aung San Suu Kyi, Bonino urged: "use your freedom to promote ours." There's a long way to go on this one, baby.