A “good wife” married to a “real man”: Three million girls still at risk of Female Genital Mutilation

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By Gaëlle Ferrant, Economist, and Estelle Loiseau, Gender Programme Officer, OECD Development Centre

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Three million girls are still at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. Twenty-five years after adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (articles 39 and 93) and five years after setting the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, which both call for the eradication of FGM, the world has failed to protect its women and girls. An estimated 200 million girls and women in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have fallen victim to FGM. However, the practice is not restricted to these regions only: 600 000 women in Europe and 513 000 women and girls in the United States have undergone FGM. These figures are unacceptable, especially when the exact total number remains unknown and is likely underestimated.

How did we get here? By ignoring social norms and customary laws, especially those defining what it means to be a “good wife” and a “real man” in certain settings, for example in Burkina Faso.

Reasons for performing FGM vary from one country to another as well as over time, but they generally include a mix of socio-cultural factors. FGM advocates often consider it a rite of passage for girls to prepare them for adulthood and marriage, and a means of ensuring what is deemed acceptable sexual behaviour. FGM increases girls’ “marriageability”: it is thought to guarantee premarital virginity and marital fidelity, and is therefore more likely to be practiced. It is linked to the belief that an excised woman will be more likely to give birth to a boy, increasing her “value” as a wife. FGM is also associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, implying that the practice removes body parts considered unclean, unfeminine or male.

The practice is deeply rooted in the social pressure to conform to what others are doing or thinking, the fear of rejection, and the stigmatisation of non-excised girls. A woman during a focus group discussion for the Burkina Faso SIGI Country Study said: “In our community, applying the law in practice is complicated. It is a tradition so everyone says: I am not going to be the one initiating [change]. If you have a girl growing up who is not excised, […] one sees her as banished. This will be difficult for her to be married. It is complicated to live in a place where one sees you like this”.

FGM is not only related to what a woman should do to be a “good wife”, but also to “manhood” and notions of masculinity. In communities where FGM is an established social norm, a “real man” should marry a woman who has undergone FGM. In Burkina Faso for example, a staggering 50% of men would prefer to marry a woman who has undergone FGM. As a result, even though Burkina Faso’s penal code (articles 380 to 382) bans FGM and 82% of the population thinks that it should be abandoned, it remains widespread: 63% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years old have undergone FGM, and over 75% of them live in the Centre-East, North, Central Plateau and Sahel regions.

So what can we do to eradicate the practice?

We must challenge harmful social norms and patriarchal beliefs on what it means to be a “good wife” and a “real man”, as laws alone are not enough to make a lasting change. According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), the main reason FGM continues today is that people in the regions where it is most practiced support it: 50% of women living in northern Africa, 18% in sub-Saharan Africa and 11% in Asia and the Middle East believe that FGM should still be practiced. The highest levels of support are in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Somalia, where 66% of women think FGM should continue, and in Mali up to 75% of women believe so. This explains why FGM is as common today as it was 30 years ago in Somalia, Gambia, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Chad and Senegal.

To achieve this social norm change, we need a holistic approach, as FGM cannot be addressed in isolation. This includes, for example, developing specific national action plans to combat FGM and linking with other programmes on child marriage, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Furthermore, the Burkina Faso example – among many others – highlights the importance of locally designed solutions combined with a whole-of-society shift to eliminate FGM, given the discrepancy between the high prevalence of the practice and the widespread consensus that it should stop. This includes working with key influencers at community level: for example, the Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme in Senegal has managed to decrease FGM by 50% in the villages that took part by working with religious and traditional leaders.

The 64th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women will review the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which includes a call to eradicate FGM. To achieve this objective, governments, international organisations and civil society should put social norm change at the heart of their gender strategies. It is only by transforming social norms that we can hope to challenge patriarchal definitions of femininity and masculinity, and put an end to such a harmful practice.