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Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting in Asia remains a neglected problem 

By Nawmi Naz Chowdhury, Global Legal Advisor at Equality Now

Significant advances have been made in Africa towards ending female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Asia, where FGM/C occurs in at least ten countries, but governments across the region are failing to take effective action. Women’s rights organizations are calling for states to introduce much-needed laws to criminalize FGM, provide national data on the extent and nature of the practice, and adequately fund efforts to tackle this regionally neglected problem.

Calls for governments in Asia to criminalize FGM/C

There remains a widely held misconception that FGM/C occurs primarily in Africa, and this low level of awareness about FGM/C in Asia is contributing to inaction. 

In recent years, the UN, through its international human rights treaty bodies and other human rights mechanisms, has provided recommendations to Asian countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and the Maldives, to address FGM/C and pass specific laws for prohibition. Yet, nowhere in Asia has a law banning it.

Participants at the 7th Asian and Pacific Population Conference (APPC)

At the 7th Asian and Pacific Population Conference (APPC), seven women’s rights organizations* made joint recommendations to regional governments about introducing a zero-tolerance approach on FGM/C. 

The APPC is a regional review mechanism that convenes every ten years to discuss critical issues on population and development in Asia and the Pacific. Held at the UN Conference Centre in Thailand on November 15 to 17, 2023, women’s rights activists convened a side event – Rights-Based Approaches as the Foundation to Achieving Just and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific – where participants discussed harmful practices affecting women and girls, including FGM/C. 

Lawmakers were advised to put in place robust legal and policy measures, and proposals were featured in the Civil Society Call to Action and the Youth Call to Action

FGM/C is a global problem

FGM/C is a harmful practice involving the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. 

Internationally recognized as a grave violation of women’s and girls’ human rights, FGM/C is done with the aim of controlling and curtailing the sex drive of women and girls. It can cause a range of lifelong physical and psychological problems, including infections and severe pain, emotional trauma, sexual dysfunction, reproductive health concerns, childbirth complications, and in some cases, death.

An interactive data tool by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that based on data from just 27 countries, the financial cost of health care for women with issues caused by FGM/C is USD $1.4 billion annually. The WHO also estimate that if FGM/C were abandoned, the savings in health costs would be more than 60% by 2050. 

FGM/C is a global concern. Worldwide, the official number of women and girls undergoing FGM/C is estimated to be over 200 million. However, the true scale is far bigger. Academic and media reports, unofficial data collected by civil society organizations, and anecdotal studies based on interviews with survivors reveal that FGM/C is found in every continent except Antarctica.

Asian governments need to provide data on FGM/C

Indonesia and the Maldives are the only Asian states that share national-level FGM/C prevalence data – no official data is provided by any other Asian countries. However, academic research and survivor testimonies strongly indicate it occurs in Brunei, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. 

Accurate, comprehensive national FGM/C data collection is vital to understanding how women and girls are directly impacted and at risk. It also provides crucial insights into what communities are involved, the types of FGM/C performed, and what the implications are for health, human rights, and bodily autonomy.

Data on FGM/C can be used to plan appropriate interventions and measure their effectiveness. Furthermore, reliable statistics are key to attracting funding and holding governments and other duty-bearers accountable. 

Lack of data gives governments an opportunity to claim a basis for inaction. For example in India, where in response to a question on FGM/C in Parliament in 2023, the Ministry of Women and Child Development noted that while there may be a few instances of FGM/C in the country, “there is no credible data to establish its prevalent existence”. 

Investing in community action to end FGM/C

Unlike elsewhere, in most of Asia, there are little or no large-scale government programs for community education and awareness raising about FGM/C. Few resources are directed toward prevention and supporting grassroots activities, and it is difficult for local organizations to secure funding. 

Collective actions, such as those led by the Asia Network to End FGM/C, are playing an invaluable role in shining a much-needed spotlight, supporting women and girls, and galvanizing collaboration within and across national borders. 

FGM/C can only be eradicated with positive community engagement about its harmful effects, underpinned by laws and policies that punish perpetrators and meet the needs of survivors. To achieve this, governments in Asia need to work in partnership with civil society organizations, affected communities, and survivors to better understand FGM/C, develop and implement effective policies, and invest in social, legal, educational, and health service provisions. 

Global commitments to eliminating FGM/C

February 6 was designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. How far we have come to ending FGM/C is gauged by the extent to which international commitments made by countries to end the practice are being met. 

Various international human rights mechanisms have been put in place for countries to take robust measures. Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 and international human rights treaties on the rights of women and girls, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) expressly prohibit FGM/C and call on states to take action. 

International documents such as the Programme of Action under the  International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD PoA), urge countries to eradicate FGM/C and contain steps for elimination. Recommendations include, “…strong community outreach programs involving village and religious leaders, education and counselling about its impact on girls’ and women’s health, and appropriate treatment and rehabilitation for girls and women who have suffered cutting,” (para 7.40, ICPD PoA).

Ending FGM/C in Asia must be prioritized

2024 will mark 30 years since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was first held in 1994. The anniversary marks a significant milestone in the area of advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls globally. Ending FGM/C is a key component of this, and to effectively implement global commitments to achieve this, global efforts must focus on Asia as a priority.  

Unless Asian countries step up to resolve current challenges, it will be hard to instigate action, design and implement policies, and hold governments and other duty-bearers to account in advocating for the introduction and effective implementation of legislative measures to finally end FGM/C in Asia. 

This article was first published by IPS News on February 6, 2024.

UPDATE: In 2024, new statistics were released by UNICEF showing 230 million women and girls around the world are affected by FGM, a 15% increase or 30 million more girls and women being subjected to FGM, compared to the data released eight years ago. This figure now includes data on Asia – showing that 80 million women and girls in Asia have been subjected to FGM, marking the first time ever that statistics have been released by UNICEF demonstrating the prevalence of FGM in Asia.

* The APPC side event – Rights-Based Approaches as the Foundation to Achieving Just and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific – was organized in partnership with: