Female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting (FGC) are now the most common terms for what used to be known as female circumcision. One is judgmental, the other non-judgmental, and both have their uses — the former works better in raising concern in the outside world, the latter in campaigning on the inside. Reduced to acronyms, however, neither do justice to one of the last great dinosaurs of human rights abuse, a practice that predates monotheistic religion. Part of the clitoris at the least, and all of the external genitalia at the most, is cut from a female child to dampen her sex drive. Her virginity and eligibility for marriage are thus preserved, and so too is her value to her family and “family honour”.
It is estimated that 120 million women in 28 African countries, as well as parts of the Middle East, South Asia and Indonesia, have undergone some form of FGM, and three million more are at risk every year. Some efforts to abolish the ritual date back a quarter of a century and have had little effect. FGM is so culturally embedded that women happily carry it out and girls are proud to have undergone it, even in those countries where it has been outlawed.
Recently, there has been some progress. Tostan is a small American NGO that was last year awarded the world’s biggest humanitarian prize, the Conrad N. Hilton Prize, for its work against FGM in Senegal. When Tostan formally began work there in 1991, UNICEF estimated the number of communities practising FGM at 5,000. Now, as a direct result of that work, 3,308 of those have publicly abandoned the ritual, and Tostan has been able to make a declaration of its own: FGM in Senegal will end by 2012.