FGM/C Shifting Sands

Articles on Shifting Sands

The low horizons of the anti-FGM industry

Published 5 February 2021 Associated Categories Responses
Zero Tolerance FGM 2021

The obsession with FGM which considers recipients little more than victims of violence with mutilated genitals reaches its zenith each year on February 5th, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. This year’s UNFPA theme is No time for global inaction: unite, fund and act to end FGM.

That the practice has been declining over the past three decades and the types girls/women undergo less severe, gets little attention. Or credit.

This year we are told that the need for action is acute because many countries are experiencing a ‘crisis within a crisis’. COVID-19 is said to reinforce existing inequalities and harmful practices imposed on girls and adolescents, including an increase in FGM. This is in addition to the four million considered ‘at risk’ each year. 

FGM has been mostly redefined as gender based violence and a human rights abuse that 200 million women and girls live with the consequences of. Some even consider it an organised crime, not a sometimes harmful, traditional, cultural practice.

The number of countries where FGM is practiced has also been recalculated upwards, from 28 in Africa to over 90 worldwide, practiced on every continent except Antartica. 

Zero Tolerance events

A number of online events are held by organisations and activists around February 5th. Discussions consider aspects such as intervening more effectively at the grassroots, involving the youth, promoting men, boys and religious leaders as allies, decolonising anti-FGM advocacy, building partnerships and inclusive movements, taking an intersectional approach etc. 

Many use the opportunity to showcase their work, to promote the uniqueness of their approach and to fundraise for their causes. Hidden Voices UK appears to be one of the few taking a critical approach in questioning the damge being caused to families and communities though support for, and the use of FGM Protection Orders.

In the UK, despite almost 10 years of intensive activism and awareness raising, FGM is still not being identified in British born children. What’s being reported as FGM are genital piercings, predominantly in caucasian teens. But considerable damage has been caused by zealous interventionism. 

Some ‘survivor activists’ from the diaspora, recognising that the anti-FGM movement’s influence is waning and funding reduced, are now setting their sights overseas: a global problem like FGM requires a global solution to be tackled at source. The UN has set a 2030 deadline to end FGM.

Having gained experience as activists and campaigners in the global north, some are becoming advisors, consultants, educators, influencers and/or setting up their own organisations or outreach arms of UK ones, often in ‘heritage countries’. It appears that UK donors look more favourably on funding applications from African based organisations.

UK Aid

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, formerley DfID, is a major donor and proudly promotes the UK as leading the world in its support to end FGM. It reports that the UK Government has led international efforts to end FGM including through a partnership with the Africa-led movement to end it. 

“Since 2013, UK aid has helped over 10,000 communities, representing over 27 million people, pledge to abandon the practice; and over 4 million girls and women have received health, social and legal services related to FGM.”

Supporting those who address African issues with an African solution is also a priority. “At the grassroots level, UK aid has supported activists, communities and experts across Africa, in their efforts to end FGM within their local context. We have also funded the United Nations to get laws and policies in place banning FGM in high prevalence countries. Through WHO, we have supported doctors, midwives and nurses to help care for survivors.”

Many are rightly critical of the Aid industry’s traditional approach, recognising the ineffectiveness of much of what it does, and that little of the allocated funding reaches the front line to support those doing the actual work. Instead, they want grassroots initiatives funded and progressive partnerships forged. 

Alert to possible funding opportunities, some are keen to include themselves in the Africa-led Movement to End FGM, to become eligible. The Girl Generation (the largest global collective of organisations working together to end FGM) considers itself particularly successful in promoting a grassroots approach. 

Feminist, Nimco Ali, the recently appointed Independent Government Advisor on Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, is a high profile example of someone who aims to forge a new path to ending FGM, through The Five Foundation. Cognisant that there is less than a decade to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 (Gender Equality), she believes the Foundation is uniquely positioned to lead on ending FGM in that time frame. 

Partnering with over 50 leading organisations around the world, including the Gender Equality team at Gates Foundation who consider frontline activism the most credible and effective agent of change, the Foundation recommends that governments and donors prioritise empowering women and strengthening the African grassroots movement by funding their organisations. The inherent racism and sexism in the traditional approach are considered major barriers that donors need to overcome in their funding choices. 

Low Horizons

I’m not convinced that this new addition to the Aid industry with its intersectional approach is anywhere near ambitious enough to tackle the ‘crisis within a crisis’. But horizons have been lowered, visionary attempts at achieving the economic growth and development necessary to raise standards of living to match or exceed that of the global north are no longer considered possible or worthwhile. While growth scepticism prevails, dependence on Aid continues. Maybe that’s why FGM has become a feminist preoccupation and support for grassroot workers considered a bold, new approach?

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.


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