What can men do to help end FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a procedure that partially or totally removes a female’s external genitalia for non-medical reasons, causes irreparable and irreversible harm, as well as life-long health and psychological complications. The United Nations estimates that about 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM. Led by MenEngage Africa, a member of the global MenEngage Alliance, men’s organizations have joined in a call to end FGM. Under the banner, “No Time for Global Inaction: Unite, Fund, and Act to End Female Genital Mutilation,” a coalition spoke out on February 5, International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.

“This practice is a global problem because it is a violation of the human rights of girls and women and an extreme form of gender discrimination,” said Hassan Sekajoolo, chair of MenEngage Africa. Sekajoolo believes that “if political leaders don’t take decisive action to ensure its demise, on the continent alone 50 million girls are at risk of FGM.” Worldwide, of all the countries that practice FGM, the African continent is home to 29, and MenEngage Africa has members in 11 of those countries.

On a continent where FGM is endemic, although across Africa 26 countries have laws prohibiting it, most are not just inadequate but seldom enforced. Prosecutions are rare, and penalties are often too lenient to act as a deterrent.

Sonke Gender Justice, based in South Africa, coordinates MenEngage Africa, a 22-country network spread across East, West, Central and Southern Africa. Members work collectively to advance gender justice, human rights and social justice in key thematic areas including sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), gender-based violence (GBV) and HIV prevention, child rights and positive parenting and in promoting peace on the continent.

In order to circumvent existing laws, the practice of FGM in some African countries has changed. According to the World Health Organization, the average age at which the practice is carried out is falling in some countries, while in others, there is a tendency to move females from a country where the practice is illegal to another country where it is allowed.

Shortly after undergoing FGM, young women are married off, often before the legal age of marriage, 18. As a consequence, FGM is closely linked to early marriage.

“We need urgent action to prevent this continued brutalization of more girls and women through this practice that is steeped in archaic cultural and religious beliefs,” said MenEngage Africa’s Sekajoolo. “As an alliance that believes men and boys are crucial in efforts to make gender equality a reality, there must be an increased mobilization of men and boys to speak out against this practice,” he added. MenEngage Africa is aligned with the AU Saleema initiative—launched by the National Council of Child Welfare and UNICEF Sudan to support the protection of girls from genital cutting—to galvanize political action to ensure strong legislation, increase allocation of financial resources and strengthen partnerships to end FGM.

Proponents of FGM say women and girls are mutilated ostensibly for their benefit. Bizarrely, there is a belief that FGM will increase a female’s chances of getting married. Another belief suggests that women who have had FGM are better at pleasing men sexually. Shortly after undergoing FGM, young women are married off, often before the legal age of marriage, 18. As a consequence, FGM is closely linked to early marriage. “This constitutes rape,” Sekajoolo said, “since they are forced into sex with often much older men.”

Another negative consequence impacts girls’ education and ability to advance themselves. Once they become wives, girls are forced to leave school to look after households, serve their husbands and bear children.

Fulfilled, educated women benefit men as well as the women themselves. “It is important that all efforts aimed at rooting out FGM must involve men and boys, the primary intended beneficiaries of the practice,” Sekajoolo said, adding, “We need more advocacy efforts by men as well as collaboration between men and women’s rights organizations to advance the campaign to end FGM. It is inhumane. It affects the sexual and reproductive rights of young people.” Jude Thaddeus Njikem, coordinator of MenEngage Africa Youth, added, “It is important that we work with young people— locally, nationally, globally— to challenge this harmful traditional practice… There is no justification for FGM and youth is the generation we must work with to put an end to this heinous tradition wherever it happens.”

Ending FGM will require a multipronged approachb ringing together lawenforcement, child protection professionals, educators, physicians, traditional and religious leaders, government agencies, activists and survivors. The scale and the impact of FGM in Africa is well documented. Ending FGM now is a developmental imperative and a life-saving intervention.

Khopotso Bodibe is communications and media specialist for MenEngage Africa Alliance.

Article originally published in Voice Male Magazine.