Women and girls are less likely to undergo female genital mutilation, or FGM, than 30 years ago. That’s the encouraging news from a UNICEF report on the controversial practice, presented this week at London’s first Girl Summit.
The rate has dropped in many of the 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East where FGM is practiced. In Kenya, for example, nearly half the girls age 15 to 19 were circumcised in 1980; in 2010 the rate was just under 20 percent.
But there’s a sobering side to the report. In countries like Somalia the rate has gone down slightly but is still over 90 percent.
And because the population is growing in parts of the world where the practice takes place, total numbers are on the rise. Unless the rate of decline picks up, another 63 million girls and women could be cut by 2050.
The report is “exciting and worrying,” says Susan Bissell, the chief of child protection at UNICEF. “The population growth will far surpass the gain we’ve been seeing if we don’t step it up.”
The report shows that more than 130 million girls and women have experienced some form of genital cutting or mutilation in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East.
The practice involves removing, partially or completely, the female genitalia — sometimes just the clitoris, other times also the labia or “lips” that surround the vagina. In extreme cases, the vaginal opening is narrowed by sewing up the outer labia.
In many communities, the custom has long been perceived as a rite of passage into womanhood. Because sexual contact is painful, the practice is also seen as a way to prevent a woman from losing her virginity before marriage. Some see it as ensuring fidelity during marriage, as the procedure eliminates sexual pleasure.
Graph: This chart tracks the changing rates of female genital mutilation in a sampling of countries — and projects the rate needed to end FGM by 2030. (via UNICEF)