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FGM: Slow progress when talking to the UN about numbers

5.2.2016, by Stop FGM Middle East

UNICEF just came out with new numbers on FGM. Instead of 140 million, the United Nations Children’s fund now estimates the number of women and girls having undergone female genital mutilation worldwide to be at least 200 million. Those extra 60 million come from adding Indonesia to the list of countries “where FGM is most concentrated”.

But FGM in Indonesia is no news. Everybody who is concerned with FGM knows that the practice is widespread not only in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. In the case of Indonesia, there were several small and large studies showing how widespread FGM was. In 2003, a large-scale study by the Population Council and USAID found that 86-100% of girls aged 19 reported to be “circumcised” (number of households surveyed: 1694).

Nevertheless, the statistics specialist for Unicef, Claudia Cappa says today to the New York Times: “We knew the practice existed but we didn’t have a sense of the scope.”

How so?

Well, this is how UNICEF works. Having been involved with FGM and criticizing UNICEF many times for it’s euphemistic numbers, we have grown quite irritated at times with “official” statements and what media makes of them. For years, we have been campaigning for the recognition of FGM in Asian countries. Already in 2012 WADI wrote:

The number 140 million is currently the common official figure of women in the world that have undergone a procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM). (…) 140 million is a very large and deplorable number, yet today we must seriously begin to consider the possibility that the number of genitally mutilated women in the world is, in fact, much higher. How so? 140 million is the estimation primarily for Africa; but growing evidence suggests that FGM is not only an “African problem” – it may well be widespread in various parts of Asia – including the Middle East. Finding out more about the real measures of the practice beyond Africa should be on the agenda of the international bodies and campaigns against FGM in 2013 and in the years to come.

Today, almost four years later, Claudia Cappa from UNICEF told the New York Times, the new data from Indonesia showed that cutting was not just “an African problem”.

It’s great to see that now also UNICEF is recognizing FGM as a problem beyond Africa. But did they sleep all those four years? Did they ignore our emails, our skype calls? No, they didn’t. Claudia Cappa even took part in our conference in Istanbul by skype and defended her statistics which only included Yemen and Iraq on the Asian continent. Yet, behind the scene of official statements, they did their job. In 2013, just after WADI had started its campaign “Stop FGM Middle East”, a large general health questionnaire in Indonesia administered to 300,000 households included questions about female circumcision. These types of surveys are developed by UNICEF and conducted by national governments in almost all developing countries every four to five years, if all goes well. This way comparable data is produced – and UNICEF only refers to this data ignoring all other studies.

And while last weeks official statements only refers to Indonesia – as if there was no FGM in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Sri Lanka, India, Iran, Oman etc. – there is again work done behind the scene. After we traveled to Oman in December 2013 and the activist Habiba Al Hinai conducted a survey on her own, we informed UNICEF of our findings: Up to 80% of women in Oman may have undergone FGM. A couple months later, UNICEF informed us that they were in talks with the Omani government to include questions about FGM in the national health survey. So, in fact we can hope that a few years down the road, UNICEF will reveal that FGM exists in Oman.

In Iran, we are not there yet. However, there is serious progress as well. On January 29th, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, another UN body, published its “Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In the report it states: “The Committee is also concerned that although female genital mutilation is criminalized by article 663 of the Islamic Penal Code, it continues to be performed on large numbers of girls in Kurdistan, Western Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Illam, Lorestan and Hormozghan.”

It concludes: “The Committee strongly urges the State party to:

(…) In the light of its General Comment No. 18 on harmful practices (2014), adopted jointly with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, take measures to enforce article 663 of the Islamic Penal Code and to effectively stop the practice of female genital mutilation throughout the country.”

From the concern of the Committee on the Rights of the Child it may be a long way till UNICEF officially recognizes FGM in Iran and finally supports efforts to stop it. However, such small achievments show that it is indeed worthwhile to advocate for the recognition of FGM in the many countries where it is not recognized as a problem yet.

This is possible thanks to the great work done by so many activists in Iraq, Iran, Oman, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries.