FGM rates in east Africa drop from 71% to 8% in 20 years, study shows

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Re­becca Rat­cliffe

The num­ber of girls un­der­go­ing fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion has fallen dra­mat­i­cally in east Africa over the past two decades, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal.

The study, which looked at rates of FGM among girls aged 14 and un­der, sug­gests that preva­lence in east Africa has dropped from 71.4% in 1995, to 8% in 2016.

The re­ported falls in the rates of FGM are far greater than pre­vi­ous stud­ies have sug­gested, though some in the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity have ad­vised cau­tion over the fig­ures.

In Fe­bru­ary, the United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Fund warned the num­ber of women pre­dicted to be mu­ti­lated each year could rise to 4.6 mil­lion by 2030, an in­crease driven by pop­u­la­tion growth in com­mu­ni­ties that carry out the prac­tice.

Ac­cord­ing to the study in the BMJ, the rates of FGM prac­tised on chil­dren have fallen in north Africa, from 57.7% in 1990 to 14.1% in 2015. In west Africa, preva­lence is also re­ported to have de­creased from 73.6% in 1996 to 25.4% in 2017.

The study aimed to as­sess if FGM aware­ness cam­paigns tar­geted at moth­ers had been suc­cess­ful. Un­like many other stud­ies, older teenagers and adult women – who tend to have higher rates of FGM – were not in­cluded. The re­search de­vel­oped es­ti­mates by pool­ing and com­par­ing FGM data by pro­por­tion across coun­tries and re­gions, us­ing a meta-anal­y­sis tech­nique.

Nafis­satou Diop, co­or­di­na­tor of UNFPA-Unicef joint pro­gramme, said it was pos­si­ble that girls in­cluded in the study would still un­dergo FGM at a later point in their teenage years.

“Some girls who have not un­der­gone FGM may not have reached the cus­tom­ary age for cut­ting and may still be at risk,” said Diop. “The age at which the girls are un­der­go­ing FGM changes from eth­nic group to eth­nic group. In Kenya, for ex­am­ple, the So­mali com­mu­nity prac­tice FGM on girls aged three to seven. But in the Maa­sai com­mu­nity they prac­tice FGM when the girl is a teenager, aged between 12 and 14.”

Although global FGM rates are fall­ing, she added, in­creas­ing num­bers of girls will be liv­ing in coun­tries where FGM re­mains preva­lent by 2030.

“Be­cause of the de­mo­graphic trends, the ab­so­lute num­ber of girls and women un­der­go­ing FGM will con­tinue to in­crease,” said Diop.

UN anal­y­sis sug­gests that rates of FGM among girls aged 15-19 have fallen from 46% in 2000 to 35% in 2015, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics across 30 coun­tries with na­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive data.

The au­thors also warn that while rates of FGM are fall­ing in many ar­eas, this down­wards trend could eas­ily be re­versed.

“If we think, ‘OK, let’s cel­e­brate,’ and we don’t con­tinue with the same ef­forts, that may have re­verse con­se­quences,” said Ngianga-Bak­win Kan­dala, the re­port author and pro­fes­sor of bio­statis­tics at Northum­bria Univer­sity. Risk fac­tors – such as poverty, poor qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port for FGM among some re­li­gious lead­ers – con­tin­ued to per­sist, he said.

The study was based on data col­lected through de­mo­graphic health sur­veys, de­vel­oped by ICF In­ter­na­tional, and mul­ti­ple in­di­ca­tor clus­ter sur­veys, which are di­rected by Unicef. Data ranged from the years 1990 to 2017 for 29 coun­tries across Africa, and two coun­tries in western Asia: Iraq and Ye­men.

Kan­dala added that trends var­ied both within and between coun­tries.

Across Ye­men and Iraq, FGM preva­lence in­creased by 19.2% per year between 1997 and 2015, though rates re­mained lower than else­where.

The re­port drew on 90 sets of sur­vey data, cov­er­ing 208,195 girls.

The re­port did not ex­am­ine the rea­sons why FGM rates had fallen, but said it was likely to have been driven by pol­icy changes, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment. Na­tional laws ban­ning FGM have been in­tro­duced in 22 out of 28 prac­tis­ing African coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the cam­paign group 28 Too Many.

In So­ma­lia, where there is no na­tional leg­is­la­tion ex­pressly crim­i­nal­is­ing FGM, anti-FGM cam­paigner Ifrah Ahmed said the prac­tice was still preva­lent. “I re­mem­ber be­ing at a school in Mo­gadishu ask­ing girls about FGM. All the girls said they were al­ready cut. Just one said she hasn’t yet,” she said, adding the girls were aged between seven and 12 years old.

“Noth­ing will change un­til you change the re­li­gious lead­ers’ [at­ti­tudes] be­cause they are very pow­er­ful in the com­mu­nity,” added Ahmed, founder of the Ifrah Foun­da­tion, which sup­ports women and girls who have un­der­gone FGM, and girls who are at risk.

The re­port con­cluded that if the goal of elim­i­nat­ing FGM was to be reached, fur­ther ef­forts were ur­gently needed, in­clud­ing work­ing with re­li­gious and com­mu­nity lead­ers, youth and health work­ers.

“This pack­age of com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­ven­tion could in­clude leg­is­la­tion, ad­vo­cacy, ed­u­ca­tion and mul­ti­me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” the re­port said.

Pho­to­graph: Ge­orgina Good­win/UNFPA

Stu­dents in Hargeisa, So­ma­liland. The study looked at rates of fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion among girls aged 14 and un­der.

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