It is feared that the number of women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) could be much higher than previously estimated, as a new report shows the practice is carried out in more than 90 countries around the world.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons and while formerly thought to be practiced only in Africa or those who came from the continent, recent studies have shown its silent practice worldwide.
The UN estimates that 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM. But this figure is drawn from only 31 countries – 27 in Africa – where national data has been collected.
After pulling together data from indirect estimates, smaller surveys, academic studies and from anecdotal evidence, researchers from Equality Now, the End FGM European Network and the US End FGM/C Network found that hundreds of thousands of cases have been documented across 92 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Latin America.
In the report, published on Tuesday, the three organisations are calling on governments to commission national surveys to create a more accurate picture of global prevalence rates, which would allow a more cohesive response to the problem.
Divya Srinivasan, a lawyer and Equality Now’s south Asia consultant, said the purpose of the report was to “spotlight that it is happening all over the world”.
Srinivasan said the focus on stopping FGM has been targeted in Africa, where there has been some success. A study published in 2018 showed that prevalence rates had fallen sharply across Africa since the mid-1990s. In east Africa the rates fell from 71.4% in 1995 to just 8% in 2016.
“But we assume it’s not happening in the rest of the world. The international community and governments need to scale up efforts across the world,” she said.
Limited data means governments can “turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening”.
According to the report, more than 500,000 women and girls in the US have undergone FGM or are at risk of doing so. In Australia, more than 50,000 women and girls had been cut, while an estimated 600,000 have undergone the practice across the EU. In the UK, 137,000 women and girls had been cut and more than 67,000 are at risk. About 70,000 had undergone FGM in Germany. Cases were also found in regions of India, Iran, Israel and Russia.
But Srinivasan, who co-authored the report, said these figures are likely to be underestimates as they are largely based on figures related to diaspora communities from countries where FGM is known to be practised.
In the US, for example, the figure excludes Christian communities.
In an interview for the report, Jenny, who grew up in a conservative Christian home in the US midwest, said she underwent FGM when she was five. She was taught to believe that women should be submissive and that “sex for pleasure was wrong for women”.
It is only recently that she has begun to talk about her experience, and started a petition to get the practice banned in Kentucky, one of 15 US states where FGM is legal. A bipartisan bill to ban FGM in Kentucky unanimously passed in January and is now heading to the Senate for consideration.
“I think it is important for people to understand just because so few Americans have spoken up, it does not mean it is not happening here,” said Jenny. “There is such a silence that surrounds this practice, that until we are talking about it more, we are really never going to know the amount of girls in the US that have been affected. We have to remove the shame, make it a subject safe to talk about.”
In 2015, 193 governments agreed to eliminate FGM by 2030 as part of their commitment to meet the sustainable development goals. (Source: The Guardian)