“A woman wounded is a nation wounded.” The exhibition of paintings currently on display at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva is both graphic and direct. It is sponsored by Canada, Ghana and Togo, its goal is to draw attention to the UN’s ongoing campaign against FGM/C, the current acronym for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. The tradition of using a razor or knife to cut away part of a girl’s external genitalia, ostensibly in order to make her more suitable for marriage, is regarded as a necessary and honorable tradition in the societies that practice it. In most of the rest of the world it is considered a senselessly cruel, barbaric and anachronistic custom, designed mainly to enforce male domination over women–that despite the fact that it is often women who are responsible for enforcing the practice. The exhibition at the Palais was launched on February 6, “Zero Tolerance Day,” and extends through February 21. You can see it on the 3rd floor passerelle, the pedestrian bridge that links the Palais’ original complex to the more modern building E, where many of today’s important international meetings take place.
Although relatively modest, the exhibit is part of a growing paradigm shift. At its core, the UN is a forum for a wide assortment of nations and cultures, and for a long time, FGM/C, which is practiced in at least 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, was considered too contentious an issue to deal with head on, even though much of the rest of the world regarded it as a barbaric and pointlessly brutal practice.
The term “sexual mutilation of women” dates back to 1929, when the Kenya Missionary Council began campaigning against it. In 1979, Austrian-American feminist, Fran Hosken, used the term “female genital mutilation” in a major report condemning the practice. In 2008, UNICEF and the UNFPA (the UN Population Fund) combined forces to launch a joint campaign to raise public awareness.
Despite those efforts, discussion was largely limited to the UN’s “Commission on the Status of Women.” By the summer of 2011, enough pressure had been created to convince the 17th summit of the African Union to advocate taking the issue to the UN General Assembly. On December 20, 2012, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for a ban on FGM/C. While powerless to enforce a ban, the resolution effectively moved the debate to the larger forum of the global debate over human rights. Since the campaign against FGM/C began in earnest, nearly 10,000 communities in Africa and the Middle East have committed themselves to ending the practice. At least 1,775 African communities joined the list in 2012. Both Kenya and Uganda have officially banned FGM/C. But despite the official condemnation, laws forbidding FGM often go unenforced. The WHO and UNICEF estimate that at this point as many as 125 million women in 29 countries have been forced to undergo the procedure.
According to figures published by UNICEF, the greatest prevalence of FGM/C is in Somalia, where up to 98% of the women between 15 and 49 have experienced it. Egypt, with an FGM/C rate estimated at 91%, is not far behind. Nawal Sadawi, an Egyptian medical doctor and psychiatrist, who had been subjected to FGM/C as a young girl, actively campaigned against the practice. Sadawi served as Director of the Ministry of Health in the 1970s, but was dismissed for publicly denouncing FGM/C in a controversial non-fiction book, Women and Sex. She subsequently recounted the incident in a novel, entitled Death of an Ex-Minister, published in 1980. In the novel, the minister retorts that the place for a woman is on her back with a man on top of her. The personality of the fictional minister then unravels. As his life falls to pieces, he blames his mother having raised him as a male chauvinist. Sadawi, who angered Egyptian politicians with her writing, was eventually imprisoned by Anwar Sadat, but released shortly after Sadat’s assassination. “I’ve always lived dangerously,” she reportedly said.
Other countries where FGM/C is widespread are Guinea, where the rate is estimated at 96%, and Djibouti, Eritrea, Mali and Sierra Leone, where it ranges from 88% to nearly 90%. In Mauritania, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, the prevalence is from 70% to 75%. After that there is a drop off. Kenya is estimated at 27%, the Central African Republic at 24%. In Togo and Ghana, which supported the exhibition at the Palais, the penetration of FGM/C is estimated at around 4%. In the Middle East, parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen (23%), and even Iraq and parts of Kurdistan also follow the practice.
What is even more shocking and problematic is that due largely to increased migration of populations an estimated 500,000 women now living in Europe have also experienced FGM/C, and there may be as many as 10,000 living in the USA. Families culturally wedded to the practice often send their daughters outside of Europe or the US in order to have the practice done in a more accommodating environment.
France, which has a large Muslim population of more than one million citizens, has taken an unusually hard stance against the practice. Anyone who practices FGM/C can be sentenced for up to 10 years in prison, and in cases where a girl is under 15 years old, the sentence can go up to 20 years. Roughly 100 people are now in French jails as the result of several dozen cases. Sending a girl outside of France to endure FGM still leaves the parents liable to a hefty prison sentence if convicted.
Seen in that context, the current exhibition at the Palais is a welcome sign of solidarity, although it is worth noting that the Middle Eastern and African countries where FGM/C is most prevalent, Somalia, Egypt and Sudan, left it to Canada, Ghana and Togo to support the exhibition at the Palais.
Of the half dozen artists who contributed to the show, only one was a woman. That could be taken as a sign of male solidarity, or as an oversight by the exhibition’s curators. One prefers to look at it in terms of solidarity. While the Uganda Observer newspaper marked “Zero Tolerance Day” with a powerful editorial against FGM/C, Time Magazine marked the occasion with an even more powerful photo essay by prize-winning Finnish photographer, Meeri Koutaniemi, who witnessed FGM being perpetrated against two step sisters. Koutaniemi had explained to the girls’ Massai father that the photographs would very likely be used in a campaign against FGM, but the father agreed to the photo shoot, convinced that Koutaniemi would discover that this was an honorable tradition. When it was over, and the girls were recovering from the trauma in a hut, the father reportedly said that he was proud that Kenya had managed to hold on to its old ways. Clearly the campaign has a long way to go.
For detailed data on which countries practice FGM/C, check out UNICEF’s data at: