All girls are entitled to live a life free from fear and violence. Yet today, that right remains unfulfilled for millions: In every country, girls continue to live within the confines of harmful gender norms and stereotypes which deny them their fundamental rights.
My country, Mali, is no exception. Female genital mutilation is still a common practice that affects around 85 percent of girls and women between 15 and 49. We cannot accept this: FGM is major violation of a girl’s rights and a brutal manifestation of the violence and discrimination to which girls and women the world over are subjected. It has no justification and must be stopped.
But how can we overcome a practice which is so deeply rooted in the social, religious and cultural traditions of the countries and communities where it is carried out?
Suffering in silence
The first place we must start is by breaking the silence that surrounds FGM. I was taught from a young age not to talk about it. “Women need to suffer in silence. They are the guardians of all secrets,” my mother often said. I never dared to talk about the pain I went through during puberty, which made me miss school a few days each month. Nor did I dare protest when on my wedding day I had to be cut again to be able to consummate the marriage that same night.
My sisters and I experienced the process of infibulation, the most severe form of FGM, which entails the whole excision of external genitalia. We thought that was normal. We suffered, and we continue to suffer, from the consequences of this hidden and violent practice.
In the course of my work, I have lifted the veil and revealed my secrets. It took many years for my family, my mother in particular, to accept my profession. “Girls from good families do not talk about those things in public,” she would say. But opening the dialogue with my mother was the best thing I ever did — she now understands and supports my fight.
Speaking out in this way is critical if we are finally to put an end to excision — the silence and secrecy that surrounds the practice only fuels it. By working with community and religious leaders, as well as FGM practitioners, we can address the problem at its core. But if we are to dispel the myths which perpetuate the practice, women and girls, men and boys must also be encouraged to talk openly about it. We need to have honest conversations, both to understand communities’ attachment to the practice and to educate them about its dangers. It’s hard, but we must not shy away from telling the painful truth about what FGM means for girls.
We are making progress, with an increasing number of villages publicly declaring they will abandon the practice. But much, much more remains to be done, and we will not eliminate FGM overnight. Changing deeply held beliefs takes time and trust.
Girls take on the fight
Perhaps our biggest hope for the elimination of FGM is girls themselves. Before, girls wanted to be cut, though they did not necessarily understand what it meant. They knew only the stigma and discrimination uncut girls experienced. But by educating them about the practice and its effects, girls are empowered to speak out against it.
With 50 percent of excisions performed on girls under 5 years old, we have witnessed more and more girls standing up to protect their little sisters from undergoing the pain and suffering they themselves have experienced. In villages across Mali, girls are realizing that FGM is nothing but an unnecessary danger to their health, and a violation of their rights.
The EU, a global leader
FGM is not limited to Mali — it is a global problem that demands a global solution. We must join forces — at the local, national and international level, from religious leaders to governments to civil society — to put an end to this practice everywhere.
Calls for ending FGM are already gaining strength across the globe. The European Union can and must play an important role in eradicating FGM. Through the its action plans on both gender equality and women’s empowerment, and human rights and democracy, the EU has reaffirmed its commitment to this cause. As such, it should support partner countries to put in place the legislative framework necessary to prohibit FGM and penalize perpetrators, and to enforce such legislation.
The EU should also assist countries to strengthen their child protection systems, providing mechanisms through which girls can report protection concerns, such as through specially trained female officers working in child protection units in police stations.
But such measures alone will not succeed in ending FGM once and for all, because the practice is upheld and perpetuated by long-held belief systems and traditions which are fundamentally discriminatory. Tackling this underlying discrimination against girls must therefore be at the heart of the EU’s external action.
In Brussels and beyond, FGM seems to be on the agenda like never before. So let’s not wait any longer to put words into action. If we act now, together, we can end this cruel and unnecessary practice in a generation. For millions of girls around the world, we must deliver on that promise.
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