It’s time to end FGM and give girls choices for their bodies and their future

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, on the occasion of International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation


The existence of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) concentrates some of the most intractable problems we face in trying to change the future for the world’s girls. The cutting and sewing of a young child’s private parts so that she is substantially damaged for the rest of her life, has no sensation during sex except probably pain, and may well face further damage when she gives birth, is to many an obvious and horrifying violation of that child’s rights. It is a kind of control that lasts a lifetime. It makes a mockery of the idea of any part being truly private and underlines the institutionalized way in which decisions over her own body have been taken from that girl—one of some 200 million currently. Worse, it is quite likely that those children will not finish school, have limited formal employment prospects, may well be married to a much older man and become pregnant within a short space of reaching puberty.  

The high rates of obstetric problems and maternal death among the same communities that practice FGM and early marriage are no coincidence. The high rates of gender inequality, low educational attainment for girls, poor health, and cyclical grinding poverty in those same communities are no coincidence either. They are all linked, and they practically ensure that those girls have domestic responsibilities and academic deficiencies that condemn them to a future with very short horizons. It is more likely that a girl will be subjected to FGM if her mother has little or no education.  With those limitations come multiple and repeating missed opportunities: personal wellbeing, social growth, economic diversity and community resilience.    

This is not a problem that can be legislated away.  Nor is it necessarily understood to be a problem by the communities themselves, who traditionally see it as conferring value on the child; an often secret ritual that is, as far as it is known, normal, cleansing, and correct. The strength of the cultural practices and norms that put a higher status on girls that have been subjected to FGM makes it especially challenging to stop FGM in communities where girls have little perceived value anyway.

The solutions demand many aspects of what is normal and valuable to be changed all together. Media plays an important role in broadening the range of known information, as do individual advocates, and men and boys who are increasingly being included in previously restricted conversations.

Rapid population growth in countries where FGM occurs has brought both an increase in the absolute numbers of girls affected to date by the current norms, and heightened urgency to break negative cycles that include low levels of education, restricted opportunity and deep inequalities. This is especially important in the light of sharpened focus on the employment of women and youth as a major driver and catalyst of poverty eradication and inclusive development. 

Worldwide, 70 million girls were born in 2015 alone. It is up to us to fulfil the promise of Planet 50-50 by 2030 so that these girls come of age with choices for their future, in a gender equal world.