Rallying men and boys in the fight against female genital mutilation
“Everything that can harm must be fought.” Babani Sidi Mohamad first heard about female genital mutilation when he was 14 years old. His sisters had undergone the practice, but when he asked why, they didn’t know – they were too young at the time to understand what was happening to them.
Almost 65 per cent of Mauritanian women and girls, aged 15 to 49, have been subjected to female genital mutilation, although it has been officially banned since 2017. An estimated three out of every four infant girls are still being forced to undergo it today.
Issuing a joint statement on the occasion of International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem and UNICEF Executive Director Ms. Catherine Russell said, "Female genital mutilation (FGM) violates the rights of women and girls and limits their opportunities for the future in health, education and income. Rooted in gender inequality and power imbalances, it is an act of gender-based violence that harms girls' bodies, dims their futures, and endangers their lives. But we know that change is possible."
Yet too often it is seen – even trivialized – as a “women’s issue”. Not only are women and girls subjected to genital mutilation, but in many cultures it is women who traditionally perform it. In fact, the practice is the product of entrenched and unequal gender norms, matters which women and girls cannot address alone. This year, the number of those experiencing female genital mutilation is actually expected to increase as conflict, climate change, rising poverty and inequality hinder efforts to eliminate this harmful practice and the deep discrimination that drives it.
To effectively counter female genital mutilation, men and boys must become allies – not only in efforts to abandon the practice but also to redress gender power imbalances more broadly.
Mr. Mohamad became one such ally. Seeing the pain and trauma female genital mutilation caused around him, he launched an organization to raise awareness in spaces where others, including men, would listen, such as mosques and at neighbouring village gatherings.
Millions of girls still face the threat of mutilation
Over the last five years, the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme has supported more than 3,000 initiatives calling on men and boys to become active advocates, convince their peers and speak up in solidarity with women and girls. In Kenya alone, some 50 networks totalling over 43,000 men and boys are now lobbying against this brutal and illegal violation of human rights.
Marie Gomez is a divisional commissioner with the police in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a country in which an estimated 95 per cent of women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation. Mr. Gomez works with Sylla Amara, from the Office for the Protection of Gender, Children and Morals, created in 2009 and supported by UNFPA, to enforce a 2018 law against the practice, but says the perpetrators have largely moved underground. “Parents hide now. Before it was a public practice, carried out by close relatives or grandmothers. But now that it’s practised in a restricted circle, denunciation is complicated.”
Their unit collaborates with local NGOs to raise awareness, and UNFPA assists with training and through a safe space where survivors can seek help from psychologists, nurses and lawyers. Megaphones, leaflets and even a motorcycle have also been provided, so activists like 61-year-old Sadio Bah can move around more easily. “Before, it was our custom. Our parents did that. But with the arrival of UNFPA, the community changed its mind,” said Mr. Bah, who travels more than 50 kilometres at a time to encourage other men and boys to join the cause.
From secrets to sutures
In 1994, Professor Akotionga was the first doctor in Burkina Faso to perform an operation to repair the physical damage caused by female genital mutilation. He has since trained more than 600 midwives, nurses and gynaecologists in repair surgery. “I learned to operate with the bare minimum. Even in the most remote bush, we can do it,” he said.
Nearly 70 per cent of women and girls in Burkina Faso have been subjected to the practice, which was made illegal in 1996. In 2022, the Joint Programme held awareness-raising sessions in more than 1,300 villages across the country to promote better understanding, communication and encourage action.
In partnership with UNFPA, Professor Akotionga now has a weekly slot at a clinic and is reassured that his operations have dropped from six to two per month, as people increasingly turn away from the act.
Across the world, men are increasingly challenging their friends, families and entire communities to support their women and girls as powerful agents of change. But much more needs to be done.
For allies like Professor Akotionga, the elements needed to banish the crime are clear: “Getting girls in school, involving men, convincing certain religious leaders and raising local awareness. It will disappear, it's a matter of time."
Yet with just eight years left to reach the global target of eliminating the practice by 2030, for many that time is running out.
The UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme, launched in 2008 and currently implementing Phase IV, works with the aim of shifting social norms in affected communities while working with governments to put in place viable national response systems. The programme works to tackle female genital mutilation through interventions in 17 countries: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen.
A version of this article first appeared on unfpa.org.