Executive Director urges accelerated action to end Female Genital Mutilation

Keynote address by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at an event at UN Headquarters on occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, 6 February, New York.


[As delivered]

Dr. Babtounde Osotimehin

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished colleagues from UNICEF, UNFPA,

Ladies and gentlemen.

Today, on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I want to thank the seven permanent missions that have invited us here to speak out on this subject. 

This is truly a global issue.

This practice is one of the most horrific violations of a young girl’s body. Of her rights. Of her future.

  • In half of the countries with available data, the majority of girls were cut before age five.
  • The vast majority of procedures are carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.

FGM has absolutely no health reason nor benefit. Instead, the procedures can cause life-threatening complications, whether performed by health professionals or by traditional circumcisers.

  • Girls and women that have undergone FGM are 70 per cent more likely to suffer hemorrhage after giving birth and are twice as likely to die during childbirth.

Women with FGM are less able to deliver healthy infants.

  • FGM is linked to increased risks of infant death during and immediately following birth.

Each new generation of girls is born with the right to live as a full human being with control over her own body.

Each new generation offers a rich resource of talent, intelligence and enterprise to bring to society.

By irreversibly damaging them in this way, we cripple and stunt their potential, both physically and mentally. And society as a whole is the loser.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, nearly one-fifth of all FGM procedures are performed by healthcare providers, from doctors to midwives.

The trend towards medicalization is increasing – in some countries the rate is as high as 74 per cent.

Yet medicalizing the procedure to make it ‘safer” is not a solution. It is missing the point.

This is not an act of caring. It is a culturally sanctioned act of controlled violence and violation.

FGM violates the right to health and bodily integrity.

It violates the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

It reinforces gender discrimination against girls and women. 

It is used as a means to ensure a girl’s marriageability and to control her sexuality and childbearing from a very young age, which in turn perpetuates this cycle of inequality.

A vital part of breaking the cycle and eliminating FGM is the empowerment of girls and women, together with women – and men – speaking out to deny the practice, and changed societal attitudes as to how girls are valued.

  • We know that in wealthier households, the prevalence of FGM is lower.
  • As mothers’ educational levels rise, the prevalence of FGM among their daughters decreases substantially. 
  • The fewer women that are cut, the less likely their daughters will be cut.

There is an important role for medical personnel related to their position as respected members of their community, and perhaps as spouses, parents, family members, friends and neighbours – to be champions of human rights and gender equality and to lend their voices to the call to stop.

Today, research and an evidence base is building, helping us to understand more about the causes and consequences of the practice, how to eliminate it, and how to care for those who have experienced it.

Let me pay tribute to the stalwart efforts of civil society, as well as our colleagues in UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), who have done so much to bring us to where we are today, together with a growing body of governments.

I particularly applaud Member States for the adoption of the most recent United Nations resolution in 2014 committing to intensify efforts to eliminate FGM. UN Women looks forward to supporting the UN system with its implementation.

In addition to these global measures, there are new tools and programmatic interventions working directly with communities, legal reforms across countries, and an overall increase in advocacy and political will.

  • Twenty-four African countries have laws against FGM.
  • Twelve industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM-practising countries also have legislation.

As a result of these efforts, the prevalence of FGM has decreased in most countries.

Overall, the chance that a girl will be cut today is about one-third lower than it was around three decades ago.

Clearly, progress is being made. However, population growth means that without dramatic change, the number of girls and women and girls affected will continue to grow.

If action against FGM is not accelerated, as many as 30 million more girls alive today may be cut in the next decade alone.

That dramatic change is possible, even with population growth: countries like Ghana and Kenya have proved it.

An increasing number of women and men are voicing support in their communities to end the practice of cutting. It is vital to bring out and amplify those voices. As our solidarity campaign “HeForShe’ strongly asserts: men can and must also take responsibility for making the changes that affect their sisters, mothers and partners.

As this year we review the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, 20 years on, and look to the development of the new post-2015 development agenda, we can further leverage the strength of international agreements and frameworks to uphold the rights of women and girls – and support zero tolerance for FGM.