Tomorrow, 9th December 2016, is World Patient Safety Day and we want to draw attention to female genital mutilation (FGM). An estimated three million girls under the age of 15 undergo the cut annually and between 130 million – 140 million women have undergone the procedure in 29 countries in Africa and countries in the Middle East, Asia, South America and even among diaspora communities in Western countries where it’s largely banned. The practice is a painful operation that involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs. Those who practice and support it say it’s for cultural or religious purposes. Unlike in boys and men, where male circumcision has hygienic and health benefits, there are none whatsoever associated with female genital mutilation.
On this day, we would like to once again register our opposition to all forms of female genital mutilation – whether it’s conducted for “cultural” or “religious” reasons and whether it’s performed in the cultural setting or by a health care worker. FGM is a fundamental violation of girls’ and women’s rights, including the right to life, the right to health and the right to bodily integrity. In the absence of any health or medical benefit, it subjects girls and women to health risks and has life-threatening consequences.
To the medical profession, we want to point out that the procedure is a violation of medical ethics. It violates the fundamental principle of “do no harm” – your profession’s guiding principle that should appeal to your collective conscience that any intervention or procedure performed on a patient must consider their well-being. Continued practice of FGM has serious life-long physical and mental consequences and the health profession needs to be cognisant of the effects of its actions in supporting a practice that has been shown to be destructive to the health and lives of girls and women and it needs to take steps to eradicate the practice in the medical setting. We implore health care workers to use their access and authority to prevent FGM from being carried out into the next generation and to provide sensitive care to women who have been subjected to the practice.
To communities and countries that support the practice, we want to draw attention to the growing body of evidence that eliminating FGM is essential to allow girls and young women to achieve their full potential. This unleashed potential, in turn, can lead to greater demographic dividends in countries undergoing fertility declines. This window of demographic opportunity exists in many of the countries where FGM is prevalent. The persistence of FGM reflects the continuation of gender inequality in societies where it is practised. Ending it will empower girls and women, promote their rights, and support their sense of autonomy.
We commend countries that have taken steps to outlaw the practice. However, we call on those countries to do everything necessary to ensure that the practice is not carried out in every village, town, city or health facility in their countries. We recognise that change in this practice may require time and great sensitivity to culturally accepted norms, but that every effort should be made to protect girls and women from FGM and to educate and modify behaviour to bring about its elimination. Furthermore, ending this practice requires action at the legal and policy levels, along with commitments to finance and to enforce relevant laws and punitive measures against those who commit the crime of female genital mutilation.
The actions of your countries support a widely-held view – one that is held by the World Health Organisation and a wide range of international organisations – that maintains that there is no justification for female genital mutilation. We encourage you to intensify your efforts to ensure that outlawing the practice is not merely lip service, but that it translates to practice on the ground.