A call to action for health workers to mobilize against FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) violates the human rights and undermines the health and well-being of some 3 million girls each year. More than 130 million girls and women in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated today have undergone some form of FGM – and the impact on their lives is enormous.
Worldwide, we are seeing increasing commitment by communities and governments to eliminate FGM – but it is not enough. Today, as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, we call on all health workers — from midwives and nurses to obstetricians and gynaecologists — to mobilize against this dangerous, deeply harmful practice.
The support of health workers in the global effort to end FGM is critical. Front-line health workers have inside knowledge of the social dynamics in the communities they serve and the social norms that perpetuate FGM, and they can speed up the rapidly declining support for the practice. Their patients know and trust them.
Health workers also have a deep understanding of the harmful consequences of this practice. They see the urinary, menstrual, and obstetric complications — including haemorrhage, infection and death — caused by it. And, they also witness the emotional wounds FGM inflicts, trauma which often lasts a lifetime.
Health workers are also uniquely well-positioned to lead the effort to resist a disturbing trend that has emerged in many countries: The medicalization of FGM. Around one in five girls have been cut by a trained health-care provider. In some countries, this can reach as high as three in four girls.
FGM is illegal in many countries, and medical providers who perform it in these places are breaking the law. But in every country, whether legal or not, medical providers who perform FGM are violating the fundamental rights of girls and women. They are also lending tacit approval to this wrongful practice and defying the most basic precept of medicine: Do no harm.
Health professionals – especially front-line health workers – may often be under considerable pressure to engage in FGM. But with support to resist this pressure, they can become part of the solution.
So, first and foremost, we call on all health workers to abandon the practice of FGM – and to use their influence, not only in the communities where they work, but also with their col-leagues to accelerate the abandonment of FGM everywhere. We also call on all health workers to protect the sexual and reproductive health of those who have already undergone FGM.
We know that health workers cannot do this alone. Our organizations, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and UNICEF, through our Joint Programme on FGM; the International Confederation of Midwives; and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, are committed to supporting efforts to provide health workers with the skills and information they need to accelerate the abandonment of FGM – and to treat the complications that arise from the practice.
Social norms, especially in tightly knit communities, can exert tremendous power over people’s lives. But social norms can also change when people use their power … when health workers, leaders, experts, and, most of all, girls and families, speak out and take action.
On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, let us take a stand together against FGM. The health, rights and well-being of millions of girls depend on it.