Human Rights Council Twenty-ninth session Agenda items 2 and 3
Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the
High Commissioner and the Secretary-General
Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,
political, economic, social and cultural rights,
including the right to development
Good practices and major challenges in preventing and eliminating female genital mutilation
Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The present report is submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 27/22 on intensifying global efforts and sharing good practices to effectively eliminate female genital mutilation. Following a brief overview of issues related to that practice and the applicable legal framework, the report contains a summary of some of the initiatives undertaken by States, United Nations entities and non-governmental and other organizations to eliminate it, and an analysis of the continued challenges. The report contains a number of conclusions and recommendations, as well as the observations that female genital mutilation in all its forms is prohibited under international human rights law and that States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right of women and girls to live free from female genital mutilation. The report includes a call on States to, inter alia, adopt and implement legislation that prohibits female genital mutilation, in accordance with international human rights law; develop comprehensive policies to address female genital mutilation, involving all levels of government; promote the education of girls; undertake education and awareness-raising initiatives; challenge the social norms supporting female genital mutilation and delink the practice from religion, social norms, harmful stereotypes and cultural beliefs that perpetuate discrimination against women; harness political leadership to end the practice; and harmonize data collection.
I. Introduction 1–2 3
II. Definition and legal framework 3–11 3
III. Good practices to eliminate female genital mutilation 12–57 6
A. Legislative measures 12–16 6
B. Comprehensive action plans 17–18 7
C. Education and awareness-raising 19–28 8
D. Engaging religious and community leaders 29–31 9
E. Other initiatives to address societal attitudes and support for female genital
mutilation 32–37 10
F. Political leadership 38 11
G. Promoting alternative rites of passage 39–41 11
H. Cross-border, regional and international cooperation initiatives 42–43 12
I. Protection and support services 44–47 12
J. Addressing female genital mutilation in minority communities 48–57 13
IV. Challenges in addressing female genital mutilation 58–66 14
V. Conclusions and recommendations 67–72 16
In its resolution 27/22, the Human Rights Council requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit to it at its twenty-ninth session a compilation of good practices and major challenges in preventing and eliminating female genital mutilation.
The present compilation was prepared in consultation with States, United Nations entities, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders. All of the submissions for the report can be found on the website Office of the of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).1
II. Definition and legal framework
According to United Nations entities, female genital mutilation includes procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitals or other injury to the female genital organs for non-therapeutic reasons.2According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in the 29 countries for which data was available, more than 130 million girls and women had been subjected to the practice. In half of those countries, the majority of procedures had been completed before the girls had reached the age of five. The practice can be found in some countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and in some communities in Latin America. It is also present in Europe, Australia and North America among communities originating from countries where female genital mutilation is practised.
The underlying reasons for the practice vary across cultures, between and within communities; however, under the cultural, religious and social surface, it becomes clear that they are all rooted in gender-based discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes about the role of women and girls in society. Female genital mutilation appears to be used as a means to control women’s sexuality and is linked to other violations based on patriarchy and gendered norms, such as child and forced marriage, marital rape and intimate partner violence. In many communities, it is seen as an important rite of passage into womanhood and indicates a girl’s readiness for marriage. Among female refugees and migrants and women with immigrant background, the practice can serve as marker of cultural identity and is often perceived as a source of personal and collective identity.
The practice often compromises the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies and has a profoundly detrimental impact on the health of women and girls, including their psychological and sexual and reproductive health. The short-term consequences of female genital mutilation can include death from hemorrhaging and severe pain, trauma and infections that may result from the procedure.3 Long-term consequences can include chronic pain, infections, decreased sexual enjoyment and psychological consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The practice is also associated with increased risks of birth by caesarean section, postpartum haemorrhage, episiotomy, extended maternal hospital stay, resuscitation of the infant, low birth weight in infants and inpatient perinatal death.4
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have identified female genital mutilation as practices that directly affect women’s and girls’ abilities to enjoy their human rights on an equal footing with men, and which therefore violate their rights to non-discrimination and equality. Joint general recommendation/general comment No. 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and No. 18 of the Committee on the rights of the Child 18 (CEDAW/C/GC/31-CRC/C/GC/18) identifies female genital mutilation as a harmful practice and notes that the harm that these practices cause to the victims often has the purpose or effect of impairing the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and children.
The joint general recommendation/general comment also notes that, overall, harmful practices are often associated with serious forms of violence or are themselves a form of violence against women and children. States have a due diligence obligation to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or occur in private.5
In her report (E/CN.4/2002/83), the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences described female genital mutilation as the result of the patriarchal power structures that legitimize the need to control women’s lives, arising from the stereotypical perception of women as the principal guardians of sexual morality, but with uncontrolled sexual urges. Both the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child have underlined that harmful practices such as female genital mutilation are deeply rooted in societal attitudes that regard women and girls as inferior to men and boys and expressed concerns about the use of these practices to justify gender-based violence as a form of “protection” or control of women and children. In this regard, States are required, under article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to take all appropriate measures to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.
The above-mentioned joint general recommendation/general comment also notes that sex and gender-based discrimination intersect with other factors that affect women and girls, in particular those who belong to or are perceived as belonging to disadvantaged groups and who are therefore at a higher risk of becoming victims of harmful practices.
Human rights mechanisms have indicated that female genital mutilation may amount to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as set forth in articles 1 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment6 and violates the right to life when it results in death.
The practice also violates the right to health.7 The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Committee have all expressed concern about the medicalization8 of female genital mutilation and have urged States not to limit criminalization of the practice only to those who perform the practice outside of hospitals and without medical qualifications. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has raised concerns about the conflation and description of the practice as female circumcision. There are fundamental differences both in the harmful effect, intent, purpose and consequences associated with female genital mutilation and “circumcision” performed on boys and men. For example, female genital mutilation is often used to primarily control women’s and girls’ sexual desires, while male circumcision does not have this intent or result.
III. Good practices to eliminate female genital mutilation
A. Legislative measures
At the time of writing, more than 40 countries have enacted legislation against female genital mutilation. In Mauritania, ordinance 2005–2015 prohibits medical practitioners and government health facilities from carrying out the procedure. Egypt and Kenya prohibit parents and guardians from pressurizing their children to undergo the practice. Ugandan and Kenyan laws on female genital mutilation make its performance and the discrimination against a woman who has not undergone the practice a crime. In Nigeria, while there is no federal law prohibiting the practice, states can enact specific legislation prohibiting the practice, as several already have.
Research by the Demographic and Health Surveys Programme (http://dhsprogram.com) indicates significant reductions in prevalence where States have enacted and enforced comprehensive criminal sanctions against female genital mutilation. In Kenya, where the prevalence rate has fallen from more than 50 per cent of girls in 1980 to 20 per cent in 2010, 71 cases related to the practice have gone to court and 16 of these cases have resulted in convictions. Burkina Faso has witnessed a reduction in the practice among young women and has recorded at least seven convictions for practising or abetting female genital mutilation. In 2014, two public mobile tribunal hearings in two separate provinces involving the mutilation of 14 girls resulted in six-month sentences for the perpetrators. Eritrea has convicted and fined at least 155 female genital mutilation practitioners, as well as parents of girls who underwent the practice, while Ethiopia has undertaken 13 prosecutions and, in Guinea-Bissau, at least 14 cases have gone to court and one perpetrator has been sentenced since 2012. In Uganda, following the adoption of the Female Genital Mutilations Act in 2010, 15 cases were brought before courts and, in November 2014, five people were convicted for performing the practice. Since 1983, when it introduced a special act prohibiting female genital mutilation, France has jailed about 100 persons for involvement in the practice. French police claims that the number of mutilations has decreased as a result of the trials and other prevention initiatives.9 On 26 January 2015, in the first case since the adoption of a 2008 law against female genital mutilation, a court in Egypt convicted a medical doctor following the death of a 13 year old girl after he had performed the practice on her in a private clinic.
Cross-border female genital mutilation is increasingly documented, partly owing to the criminalization of the practice and to strict enforcement of legislation prohibiting it in countries with large practicing communities. In accordance with article 44, paragraph 3, of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, States parties must ensure that the practice is punishable if committed in a third country by or against one of their nationals or residents, even if the practice is not considered a criminal offence in that country. Similarly, States parties must take the measures necessary to establish jurisdiction over a female genital mutilation offence when an alleged perpetrator is present on their territory. This principle of extraterritoriality has been introduced into many European laws. Sections 1 and 4 of the Female Genital Mutilation Act (2003) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland make it a criminal offence for any person, regardless of their nationality or residence status, to carry out or be involved in carrying out female genital mutilation. In 2006, Italy introduced a specific criminal law provision on the practice (Law No. 7/2006), making it punishable even if it is committed outside the country. Denmark, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland have criminalized practicing or assisting or abetting the practice of female genital mutilation, both inside and outside the countries. In 2011, Kenya added an extraterritoriality clause in its law, making performing female genital mutilation outside its border a criminal offence for Kenyans. In 2012, Ireland adopted the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act, which prohibits the practice of or attempts to practice female genital mutilation.
In addition to enforcing legislation and policies on female genital mutilation, some countries have also established mechanisms to monitor progress in elimination efforts and have allocated resources for implementation, including equipping relevant officials with the requisite personnel, financial, technical and other resources. For instance, Kenya’s law prohibiting the practice mandates the establishment of an anti-female genital mutilation board, which has both an operational and advisory role, including for securing adequate resources for combatting female genital mutilations.
Enforcement of national legislation should include special considerations for victim and witness confidentiality and the provision of services, including protection for parents and girls who reject the practice. As the perpetrators of female genital mutilation tend to be family members, victims are often unwilling to support prosecution, and in some instances may refuse to provide police investigations with a statement. Family pressure to accept the practice can be immense; there are documented cases of threats to parents who have refused that their daughters undergo the practice and also of girls who claimed to have mutilated themselves in order to protect their parents. A number of countries have addressed witness and victim protection needs in their legislation on the practice. For instance, United Kingdom legislation grants automatic anonymity to victims of the practice who report the incident to the police.
B. Comprehensive action plans
In addition to legislation, the elimination of female genital mutilation requires complex multisectoral strategies involving all sectors of government and the wider public, including the media, civil society groups, community leaders, medical professionals and teachers. It also requires addressing and engaging with beliefs and social attitudes and norms within the communities where it is practised.
The following States have implemented comprehensive and coordinated action plans against female genital mutilation:
Burkina Faso’s action plan establishes an intersectoral group comprising 13 ministries, as well as women’s groups, religious and community leaders, law enforcement officials and the judiciary, to oversee the implementation of its law on the practice
In 2013, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs launched a two-year national strategy on harmful traditional practices that involves the health and social care sectors; in addition, the Government, with the assistance of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations, has designed child protection networks
Senegal’s national action plan for the period 2010–2015 involves the creation of regional committees, departmental and rural communities for the abandonment of female genital mutilation; as a result of this multi-dimensional approach, thousands of villages in Senegal have reportedly publicly abandoned the practice and other harmful practices
Cameroon’s national action plan, in partnership with civil society such as the Council of Imams and Muslim Dignitaries of Cameroon includes support for the socioeconomic reconversion of practitioners
Egypt, Cameroon, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and the United Republic of Tanzania have developed multisectoral strategic action plans that involve different government institutions and emphasize awareness-raising, while, in 2004, Mauritania adopted a five-year national action plan against gender-based violence and the Government has pledged to adopt in 2015 a law against gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation.
C. Education and awareness-raising
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Accelerating Change,10 comprehensive formal, non-formal and informal education linked with awareness-raising programmes can contribute greatly to preventing female genital mutilation.
Evidence shows that the incidence of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation decreases with gains in female literacy. A survey by UNICEF in Egypt found that 72 per cent of women with no education wanted the practice to continue compared with 44 per cent of women with higher levels of education. Furthermore, 15 per cent of women with no education wanted to abandon the practice, compared with 47 per cent of women with higher education.11 In another survey conducted by the organization Human Rights Watch in Yemen, mothers who had no education or only primary school education were more likely to subject their daughters to the practice, and mothers with more children were more likely to have at least one daughter undergo the practice.12
A number of civil society organizations provide scholarships for girls to enable them to remain in school as a means of preventing female genital mutilation. In the United Republic of Tanzania, for instance, the Maasai Women Development Organization has given scholarships to enable girls who otherwise would have been mutilated and forced into marriage to remain in school.13 The Pastoralist Child Foundation is working in Samburu and Maasai Mara, Kenya, to eliminate the practice through educational sponsorships for girls.14 In 2014, the county of Pokot in Kenya committed to spending over $1 million on eliminating female genital mutilation, with much of the funding to be used to provide scholarships for girls.15
Information and awareness-raising on the harmful impact of female genital mutilation and its legal prohibition are critical to eliminating the practice. The abovementioned UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme supports community-based educational dialogues in 17 countries. The dialogues are often led by a community health worker and involve sharing information on human rights, health and gender norms. Under the programme, workshops on the harmful impact of the practice were held in Mauritania and assistance provided for the development of a road map to strengthen the ability of the Ministry of Endowment of Yemen to encourage public leaders, including religious leaders, to oppose it.
The organization Equality Now offers support to the Government of Kenya to translate the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act into a language that can be understood by the public, and is supporting its translation into Kiswahili to expand its reach among the populations in areas where the practice is prevalent. It has also issued 1,000 copies of the Act to Kenyan primary school head teachers to encourage teachers to play a role in ending the practice.
Examples of programmes that work with young people, including on outreach programmes in schools and the wider community, were highlighted. For instance, Senegal has introduced “Tostan”, a participatory education programme that works at the village level to incorporate literacy and essential health education, including information about female genital mutilation, into the learning experiences of the entire community. Senegal has also incorporated prevention of the practice into elementary and junior high schools curricula. In Burkina Faso, the National Committee has piloted training for teachers and incorporated female genital mutilation into the natural sciences curriculum within schools.
In 2014, a youth summit in the Gambia brought together 100 Gambians aged 17–25 years to build their campaigning and social media skills and equip them with the legal and medical knowledge to raise awareness on the practice among young people. In Djibouti, the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme assisted in mobilizing 500 young people to become engaged in the global campaign to end female genital mutilation and 30 young girls were trained to become youth peer educators for the abandonment of the practice in their respective communities.
The Ministry of Health of Egypt and the national council for childhood and motherhood hold regular workshops on female genital mutilation and open days in youth centres across the country to raise awareness on the harmful impact of the practice. In eastern Ethiopia, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in partnership with a community-based non-governmental organization, the Mother and Child Development Organization, conducted awareness-raising campaigns and weekly group discussions, referred to as “coffee ceremonies”, and mobilized youth clubs against the practice in three Somali refugee camps.
From 1998 to 2006, the female genital mutilation prevalence rate in the Niger was halved as a result of the work of civil society groups, in particular the Nigerien committee on traditional practices, which carried out studies, awareness-raising interventions, training, advocacy and retraining for practitioners, to stimulate behavioural change in concerned communities. It also assisted in setting up monitoring committees to track activities in remote villages.
In Mauritania, the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme collaborated with the National Theatre and organized a sensitization tour on female genital mutilation in five high-prevalence regions of the country. A large number of other sensitization activities were also carried out in collaboration with partner non-governmental organizations. Following the tours, 76,850 people made public declarations against the practice.