Why re-examining “niche” issues is crucial to achieving gender equality

Thursday 10 December 2020
| By Ebony Riddell Bamber, Head of Advocacy & Policy, Orchid Project

2020 marks 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the landmark roadmap for achieving gender equality, yet we are still nowhere near the end of that journey.

Many of us are impatiently pursuing dedicated strategies to enable gender equality; from promoting women’s leadership, to championing adolescent girls’ agency, to supporting women’s economic empowerment. At Orchid Project, we are playing our part by working to end female genital cutting (FGC).  We believe this work needs greater attention if we’re to achieve the transformational vision of Beijing, and truly leave no-one behind as we pursue our 2030 Agenda.

Focusing on FGC is often dismissed on the basis of it being a “niche issue”. I know stats alone can leave people unmoved, but it is important to communicate the scale of this practice: 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC, with 4.1 million girls cut each year.

FGC affects women and girls in at least 92 countries. It can negatively affect women and girls’ physical, mental, psychological and sexual health from the moment of the cut and for the rest of their lives. WHO data estimates the economic costs of the practice to be a vast $1.4 billion annually to health systems, at current rates. It impairs girls’ chances of finishing school, and can lead to early pregnancy and child marriage. This is far from a peripheral concern.

Dismantling gender norms for bottom up change

Our approach is to work with entire communities to shift social and gender norms which undermine women and girls’ agency and bodily autonomy. We know change is possible at the grassroots level, when whole communities – including men and boys – are engaged. This deeply entrenched practice won’t end unless we engage with the discriminatory norms and unequal power relations that blight women’s and girls’ lives and perpetuate gender inequality.

Research around gender-transformative approaches to gender-based violence is growing, and engaging these strategies in FGC prevention programming has an important role to play in enabling gender equality.

Those who lead change also come from within affected communities. Black women and women of colour are champions for ending FGC at community level and through tireless advocacy in global fora. The reality and impacts of intersectional discrimination are felt and understood deeply within this activist community, many of whom are survivors of the practice.

In every case, FGC is a violation of human rights, gender-based violence, a manifestation of violence against women and girls, and an abuse of sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Women from communities have an essential role, but they need financial and technical support so that we can strengthen the movement and knowledge of the scale of the practice and what works to end it.

Leaving no one behind

Yet reaching these women and girls, and the communities they call home, has not been sufficiently prioritised to bring numbers down and achieve the progress needed to achieve SDG target 5.3.2, a key contributor to SDG goal 5 on gender equality.

Almost every country in which FGC occurs is in the bottom quintile of the Human Development Index; in most cases, they are also countries with the highest projected birth rate over the next decade. UNICEF predicts that, despite falling rates of cutting in many countries, population growth means that up to 63 million more girls could be cut by 2050 if efforts are not accelerated. Covid-19 has only made the situation worse, with UNFPA estimating 2 million more girls will undergo FGC by 2030 due to NGO programme disruption.

Ending FGC will require disrupting negative gender norms, thus making space for greater realisation of girls’ rights to education, health, bodily autonomy, and ultimately non-discrimination. These are critical underpinnings for women leaders to emerge and play a more powerful role in building just, equitable and climate-resilient societies.

Ending FGC will mean we can finally say goodbye to an act which is carried out needlessly on the bodies of 4.1 million girls each year, and continues to undermine the lives of millions of women daily.

How many of you who work on gender equality are also incorporating work to end FGC? In programming on girls’ education for example, FGC is a key driver of school dropout in many contexts. FGC must also be recognised and included in interventions focused on gender-based violence, adolescent girls’ agency, and women’s empowerment, to name a few.

There’s still time to start.

Image credit: Girls and women attend a community dialogue session on FGC hosted by COVAW