Opinion: UK's commitment to end FGM is vital — but we must look beyond Africa

The Orchid Project works to end female genital cutting around the world. Photo by: Clement Tardiff

Last week, the United Kingdom government made a historic commitment aimed at ending female genital cutting across Africa by 2030. According to the government, the £50 million ($64 million) investment is the largest ever put toward the issue by an international donor.

The announcement from the U.K. Department for International Development represents a ray of light in a world that so often does not prioritize girls, their bodies, and their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Put simply, the U.K. government is doing what is right for women’s bodies; and we are one step closer to achieving a world free from female genital cutting.

“Female genital cutting has long been neglected by large trusts and foundations. Perhaps the [U.K.] government’s £50 million message will give these actors the confidence to invest in girls’ futures.”

— Julia Lalla-Maharajh, CEO and founder, Orchid Project

Female genital cutting involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitals for nonmedical reasons, and more than 200 million women and girls alive today in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have undergone the procedure, according to the World Health Organization. On average, a girl will undergo female genital cutting before the age of 5. It can lead to dangerous complications, and may cause long-term physical and psychological issues.

There is little detail yet on what the DFID commitment will go to, but the headline information is promising:

         • This investment will support community-level projects to shift attitudes toward the abandonment of female genital cutting, something my organization, the Orchid Project, has long championed. If we don’t work at the community level, we are ignoring the fact that decisions around whether to cut a girl or not are made within families and homes.

         • DFID’s announcement shows ambition to fund grassroots activists and youth initiatives with small grants to “lead change within their communities and hold governments to account,” according to the DFID press release. By 2050, nearly a third of girls worldwide will be born in one of the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated. It is therefore paramount that youth are central in work to end female genital cutting.

         • There is a commitment to continue working with the United Nations and governments to make sure that legislation is in place and strengthened.         

         • The U.K. government has also emphasized the importance of funding work that ensures medical workers do not cut girls. Given it is estimated that over 20 percent of girls globally who experience female genital cutting are cut by health care practitioners, this is incredibly important.

What brings me great hope on first looking at this package of funding is that it seems to be truly holistic in nature. DFID recognizes female genital cutting as a social norm, held in place by a confluence of different actors and expectations. This recognition has guided DFID to look at different entry points to end the practice; through working at the grassroots and with health workers, youth, activists, and religious leaders.

Equally inspiring is the scale of this funding. This £50 million is a serious commitment. We can only hope that it attracts other donors from around the world to accelerate abandonment of female genital cutting.

What we have yet to see is which countries will be eligible for funding, and what DFID’s commitment to supporting work at the grassroots actually means in practice. While this is fantastic news for the Africa-led movement to end female genital cutting, we are still missing large-scale recognition that the practice takes place outside Africa, in the Middle East, and Asia — with at least 15 million girls at risk by 2030 in Indonesia alone.

There is little data and research on female genital cutting in the Middle East and Asia, but initial research suggests that within the Dawoodi Bohra community in India and Pakistan, for example, 80 percent of women may have been cut. The practice is known to occur in Malaysia, where the deputy prime minister, who is also the women’s minister, Dr. Wan Azizah, recently stated that female genital cutting is “cultural” and not mutilation. These are just two examples of at least 15 countries outside Africa where the practice is known to occur, but where national data on female genital cutting is not collected.

With increased recognition that female genital cutting is happening in the Middle East, Asia, and within diaspora communities globally, we hope that greater public and political attention will be brought to the issue, as well as investment to support the abandonment of the practice.

What’s more, female genital cutting has long been neglected by large trusts and foundations. Perhaps the government’s £50 million message will give these actors the confidence to invest in girls’ futures and stand up for their human rights.

We can take great encouragement from DFID’s pioneering announcement. I hope that this is the first major step by governments around the world to prioritize women and girls’ bodies, rights, sexuality, and health, so that all girls everywhere can live free from female genital cutting.

About the author

  • Julia%2520lalla maharajh

    Julia Lalla-Maharajh

    Julia Lalla-Maharajh founded Orchid Project in 2011 with a vision of a world free of female genital cutting (FGC). She has received numerous awards for her work and received an OBE in 2017.

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