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As we advocate for Zero Tolerance for FGM, let’s not ignore this important Accountability Tool: The ACHPR-ACERWC Joint General Comment on FGM 

Photograph of the ACHPR 55th Session showing people sat behind a desk at the front of a room, with flags behind them

Nearly 140 million women and girls in the African continent have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM),  a serious human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. African governments are required to take measures to eliminate FGM in accordance with their regional and international human rights commitments, including under the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Children’s Charter). While 28 countries in the African continent have specific laws against the practice, ensuring that states implement and enforce these laws and commitments requires constant monitoring of the human rights situation relating to FGM and the effective use of accountability mechanisms.

In a step towards promoting such accountability, in November 2023, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) launched the Joint General Comment on Female Genital Mutilation. This General Comment is an incredible resource that authoritatively clarifies and elaborates on the measures needed for governments to fulfill their commitments to eliminate FGM under regional and international human rights treaties. 

A brief overview of the state obligations highlighted under the Joint General Comment is provided below:

Principle of Best Interests of the Child:

It establishes that the principle of the best interests of the child overrides any other competing considerations, including cultural, religious, or social norms, which means that the right to culture or religion cannot be used to justify the practice of FGM, which is harmful to children. 

Legislative Action:

In accordance with the Maputo Protocol, states must ensure that national legislation specifically prohibits and condemns FGM. This necessitates the adoption of specific anti-FGM legislation, which: 

  • sets out clear parameters for the enforcement of the prohibition, including clearly defining FGM; 
  • ensures that the framing of the law does not expose victims to prosecution; 
  • clarifies the parameters for accountability for FGM, including by specifying reporting responsibilities in the case of children and allowing private prosecution of perpetrations
  • prohibits and sanctions the involvement of medical and paramedical professionals in FGM while ensuring that the law does not make it unduly risky or difficult for medical professionals to provide post-FGM care to survivors. 

Support Services:

States should establish measures to provide support to girls and women who experience FGM, including emergency healthcare services, long-term care, including access to physical reconstruction surgeries, and psychological counseling and care. These services must be available free of charge and in proximity to affected communities. 

Access to Justice:

Facilitating access to justice requires states to: 

  • provide effective legal aid to women and girls who wish to pursue legal action; 
  • train law enforcement, prosecution, and judicial officers on handling matters related to FGM and gender-sensitive approaches; 
  • reform their laws related to the standard and nature of evidence recognising the potential difficulty in obtaining evidence in FGM-related crimes; and 
  •  allow women and girls to pursue civil action for violations resulting from FGM, and have access to civil remedies, including damages. 

Cross-Border FGM:

Measures should be taken to ensure that the protection from FGM applies to cases where a girl or woman has been taken across the border and that there is accountability for parties involved in such cases, including by articulating a regional accountability framework and signing of judicial cooperation agreements between States. 

Monitoring and Coordination:

States should empower administrative machinery, including community and local government structures, to monitor FGM practices at the local level and implement accountability measures. States should also ensure that there is effective coordination between institutions and measures put in place to address FGM, including establishing a specific oversight and coordinating mechanism. 

Humanitarian Crises:

States shall ensure that the design and implementation of humanitarian responses prioritise measures for the protection of women and girls from FGM.

Multi-pronged and Cross-Sectoral Measures for FGM Eradication:

Since FGM is a complex social issue, measures towards the eradication of FGM must be multi-pronged and cross-sectoral and include: 

  • Provision of state-funded shelters and places of safety for girls at risk of FGM, which are accessible and equipped with strong referral mechanisms 
  • Measures to educate the public on FGM, including through the integration of FGM content into the formal education curriculum, implementation of public awareness and outreach programs, and use of mass media and social media
  • Encouraging progressive practices that are effective in the elimination of FGM, such as alternative rites of passage, and addressing the causes and drivers of FGM by discouraging customs and traditions that are inconsistent with the goal of eliminating FGM. 

Partnerships and Resources:

States should build strategic partnerships with various stakeholders, including CSOs, UN agencies, media, and religious and community leaders. They should leverage the mandate of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to lead on monitoring the implementation of FGM-related laws and policies. Under the Maputo Protocol, states have an obligation to provide specific and targeted budgets for the elimination of FGM. Recognizing the role of economic deprivation as one of the drivers of FGM, states must take specific measures to mitigate poverty. States must also recognize and strengthen the agency of girls and women as advocates against FGM. 

State Reporting Obligations:

State reports under the Maputo Protocol and the African Children’s Charter must have specific information on steps taken to comply with the measures taken to address FGM elaborated in the General Comment.

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Divya Srinivasan is Global Lead for End Harmful Practices at Equality Now.