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EU saves thousands of girls from female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child marriage affect the lives of millions of girls every year. The EU and UNICEF are partners to stamp out these practices Through a joint project on the abandonment of social norms harmful to girls and women, UNICEF and the EU have supported families, communities and countries to end female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage. With EU and other international support, Senegal is close to becoming the first country in the world to declare total abandonment of FGM/C.

The EU and UNICEF are working together to reduce traditional harmful practices in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Senegal, Sudan and India, through an innovative approach aimed at changing social norms and attitudes. In response to grass-roots education and discussion programmes, rural communities across Africa, which have practiced female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) for centuries, are starting to abandon the tradition.

The EU provided support to organise large-scale community discussion sessions based on human rights, collective decision-making in communities and extended social networks, and community and district-wide public declarations for the abandonment of FGM/C. The project contributed to help save thousands of girls from female genital mutilation in five African countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Senegal and Sudan.

EU and UNICEF support drive to end female genital cutting in Senegal

Senegal is at the forefront of the campaign to stop female genital/cutting.  In little more than a decade, nearly four of the five thousand practicing communities have announced that they will abandon the practice. The last years have seen the most rapid change, thanks to support from the EU for UNICEF partners in Senegal.

The EU’s support helped to galvanize national partnerships and set in motion dynamics of change to reduce support for and end practices harmful to children and women. In synergy with other national efforts, significant results have been achieved:

  • With EU and other international support, Senegal is close to becoming the first country in the world to declare total abandonment of FGM/C. Senegal has made astonishing progress. In little more than a decade, nearly four of the five thousand practicing communities have announced that they will abandon cutting. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of villages declaring abandonment increased from 300 to 5,315, about 550 communities or a 16% increase per year. 
  • In Egypt, the number of families declaring abandonment of FGM/C increased from 3,000 in 2007 to 17,772 families in 2011. 
  • In Sudan, the Saleema Campaign started in 2008 with EU and UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme support, and has brought about public declarations from 470 new communities from 2008-2011.

Community-led approaches bearing fruit

In many African countries, female genital mutilation/cutting (the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia) is a centuries-old custom, believed to make girls marriageable. Like child marriage, it is a manifestation of gender inequalities and a significant obstacle to women and girls realising their full human rights. Deeply rooted in tradition, the abandonment of these practices can only be achieved by taking into account the complex underlying social dynamics.

Across the five African countries, the EU/UNICEF project has implemented a common approach based on community-led discussions to end harmful practices.
Early attempts to end FGM/C had limited impact and were at times perceived by communities as an attack on their traditions. It was only when those seeking
to end FGM/C began working closely with communities, and when communities began to feel a sense of empowerment and ownership, that progress was made.

The most successful programmes did not bring outsiders into communities to initiate a discussion on FGM/C, but instead, engaged respected community members to promote transformation, including religious and local leaders, representatives of local women’s and youth associations, and others.

Africa – fostering community dialogue
“I simply didn’t want them to be out-spoken and insulted by others. I got them cut to spare them that shame.” This is how Tenaya Tessema from Imdibir, Ethiopia, explains her choice to get her daughters cut. Today, the two girls have become activists determined to stop other girls from suffering the same fate. Thanks to EU and UNICEF action in the country, they have been able to participate in activities that raise awareness of harmful practices.
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The EU’s support has also contributed to a global evolution in understanding social norms change. By generating new research and data analysis, the EU and UNICEF have documented dynamics of social change in several exemplary countries. These insights have been applied to new global policy on the abandonment of harmful practices in line with the latest evidence.

A major achievement at global level was the launch of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre’s multi-country study on social norms change. ‘The Dynamics of Social Change – Towards the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Five African Countries'.

The knowledge on social norms and social norms change generated through the project has been incorporated into programmes and policy formulation internationally and in the countries where the EU and UNICEF are working together: Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Senegal, Sudan and India.

The project also supported a ground-breaking university-based course, co-designed with the University of Pennsylvania for UNICEF staff on current advances in theory and programme implications of social norms.

Steady progress on female genital mutilation

Estimates show that up to 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM/C and are living with painful complications. Each year around three million girls – 8,000 a day – suffer from FGM/C.  The practice occurs in African countries, and some countries in the Middle East and Asia. Girls are generally aged between five and 11; most girls are cut without any medical supervision.

While millions of girls and women are still at risk of being subjected to FGM/C, progress has been made towards ending this harmful practice. The EU's funded multi-country study shows that interventions taking into account the social dynamics that perpetuate FGM/C, have triggered positive results.

Senegal: FGM/C prevalence has declined slightly over the years, a comparison of prevalence rates across age groups indicates: 25 % of girls and women aged 15-19 reported having been cut, compared to 31 % of women aged 45-49.

Egypt: Despite high prevalence (according to 2008 data, 91 % of women had been cut), there are some signs of change in attitudes over the last decade. The practice has also become less common among the youngest age groups.

Ethiopia: Despite high prevalence rates, the practice is declining: between 2000 and 2005, the rate of FGM/C declined from 80 to 74 %.

Kenya: Between 2003 and 2009, the FGM/C prevalence rate decreased from 32 to 27 %.

Sudan: Although data indicates that there has been almost no change in FGM/C prevalence since 1990, and almost no change across age groups, attitudes appear to be changing and support for FGM/C is on the decline.

According to the UNICEF report "State of the World's Children – 2009", 47 % of women in Africa had undergone FGM/C.

Helping to end child marriage in India

Progress has also been marked on child marriage in India. With EU support, four state-wide action plans on child marriage have been established, leading to large-scale community-led awareness raising and large-scale media coverage in favour of ending child marriage. As a result, UNICEF participated in a visit of prominent world leaders from The Elders was organised in 2012 to India to discuss strategies for accelerating child marriage abandonment through the Girls Not Brides partnership.

The project has also supported formative research in India, carried out by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), on the social norms that uphold child marriage and pre-natal sex selection in India.

In India, four states have combined state action plans for the application of the Child Prohibition Act with significant community-led awareness raising and mobilisation, and large-scale media coverage in favour of ending child marriage.

India – empowering children

According to UNICEF's "State of the World's Children-2009" report, 47 % of India's women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18.

“I thought my life would be completely ruined,” says Bablu who lives in a small village in rural Rajasthan. She was 13 when community pressure led the family to agree to an early marriage. Thanks to the joint EU- UNICEF project, her father could be convinced that it was in his family’s best interest to let Bablu continue her studies.
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The project implemented by UNICEF received a total of € 3 991 000 in EU funding over the period 2008-2012.

Last update: 07/03/2014 | Top