Survivors in the lead: A look at the global campaign to end female genital mutilation

The image shows a young girl dressed in a traditional Bangladesh cultural headdress as the cover of a wedding album, with the text "Not Happily Ever After" inscribed just beneath the image.
Photo: UNFPA Bangladesh/Prince Naymuzzaman

With Valentine’s Day approaching, February is a busy month for retailers marketing the promise of “happily ever after” to girls around the world. But for tens of millions of girls, this is just a fairytale. Their girlhoods are being forever marked, even ended, with the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.  

Adherents say that FGM—the cutting of a girl’s external genitalia for nonmedical purposes—ensures virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward, thereby making a girl more marriageable. It is typically practiced on girls ranging in age from 0-15 years, and in dozens of countries, primarily in Africa and Southern Asia, even as many of those countries have laws against it.  

FGM is a medically dangerous procedure and a human rights violation. And yet the practice is increasing as the COVID-19 pandemic forces girls out of school and drags their families into poverty. 

A mother in Uganda stops the practice from being passed down 

Margaret Chepoteltel, age 38, is from Uganda. Ms. Chepoteltel was 13 when she underwent FGM and had been looking forward to the rite of passage. Unaware that the procedure could cause lifelong health problems, she believed FGM would pronounce her ready for marriage and she could fulfil her parents’ wish for cattle, as a “cut” woman fetches a larger dowry than an “uncut” woman. Indeed, two years after undergoing FGM, she was married off and went to live with her husband’s family.  

Caption: “I curse the practice of FGM and I don’t want any daughter of mine to go through this process that almost claimed my life.”

Photo: John Bosco Mukura/CDFU

“After two years of marriage, I got pregnant but faced a problem while giving birth,” says Ms. Chepoteltel.

“I was on the verge of death as the long distance to the health facility had weakened me. I had never felt so much pain in my entire life. I was bleeding badly, and this was coupled with the labor pains. I was lucky because somehow I stayed alive, but I eventually lost my baby.” 

It wasn’t until many years later that Ms. Chepoteltel learnt that many of her health issues, including birth complications, were linked to cutting. Now a mother to two daughters, aged 7 and 8, she says she will never let the same thing happen to them. 

200 million survivors worldwide 

Globally, some 200 million women or girls alive today have experienced female genital mutilation, and at least 4 million girls are at risk of undergoing the practice each year. 

Last year, UNFPA and partners projected that the pandemic would likely delay efforts to end the practice. These delays could result in 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation over a 10-year period that could otherwise have been averted.  

Advocates are now ramping up efforts to prevent these grim forecasts from taking hold. 

Caption: In Sierra Leone, Fatmata refused to be cut and was forced to flee town. Today she is a leader for change. “We have the right to say no, even if we are children,” she says.

Photo: UNFPA Sierra Leone/John Sesay

The sixth of February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. This year, advocates are calling on leaders, community members and parents to take decisive action against the practice. It is time, they say, to give girls the power to claim their bodies and futures for themselves. 

Global action to empower girls 

Together, UNFPA and UNICEF are running one the world’s largest collaborations to end this harmful practice. 

The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation works in 16 countries where the practice is prevalent. In 2019, these efforts resulted in more than 2.8 million people in 3,362 communities publicly declaring they would abandon female genital mutilation. 

In Kenya, one of the Joint Programme countries, former circumcisers are being mobilized to fight against the practice they once profited from. “After a night of singing and dancing, the girls would wake up at the crack of dawn and shower. We would then proceed to the cowshed where I performed the cut,” says Kokarupe Lorwu, who performed female genital mutilation for 20 years. 

She learned the tradition from her grandmother, who was also a circumciser. But once she learned about the harmful effects of the practice — including hemorrhage, infection, and even death — she put down her tools. 

Her commitment is shared by Ms. Chepoteltel, in Uganda, who says,

“I curse the practice of FGM and I don’t want any daughter of mine to go through this process that almost claimed my life.”  

Ms. Chepoteltel was trained in community engagement as part of a campaign called “Make Happiness Not Violence,” led by the Communication for Development Foundation Uganda and supported by UN Women and then UN Spotlight Initiative. She now advocates against FGM, saying, “If I keep quiet, our daughters will go through a lot of pain and suffering. We will continue to tell mothers, fathers and the girls themselves about the dangers of FGM, and to discourage cutting. We will not give up.” 

To learn more about the struggle against FGM, visit this UN online photo exhibit.  

Adapted from stories by UNFPA and from the Spotlight Initiative, the latter of which was written by John Bosco Mukura and Anne Gamurorwa with reporting by Eva Sibanda. Edited by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office.

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