Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C). Worldwide, 100 to 145 million women have been subjected to this practice, which can range from nicking the skin to a total removal of the external female genitalia. Every day, 6,000 girls are at risk.

In Guinea, a woman receives training in problem-solving skills as part of USAID-supported efforts to encourage communities to abandon female genital mutilation. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Fakan, USAID

Zero Tolerance Day is an opportunity to raise awareness about the harmful effects of FGM/C and unite communities around the world in calling for an end to the practice. FGM/C is practiced across cultures and religions—though notably, major religious doctrines do not mandate the practice. It is most common in Africa, the Middle East, and some countries in Asia. However, it also can be found in the United States, Europe, and other places where migrants bring their cultural traditions with them. Parents and communities practice FGM/C based on cultural beliefs about health, hygiene, and women’s sexuality. In many cases, it is considered a traditional rite of passage.

However, research has consistently shown that all forms of the practice harm women’s health. It causes serious pain, trauma, and frequently severe physical complications such as bleeding, infections, or even death. In the long term, it can also lead to recurrent infections, infertility, and difficult or dangerous childbirth that threatens the lives of both mother and infant.

Since the early 1990s, USAID has supported FGM/C abandonment efforts. In September 2000, the Agency officially established the elimination of FGM/C as part of its development agenda, and issued an official policy and strategy on the topic. The single most important aspect of ending this practice is involving the community. USAID focuses on enabling and empowering communities to make their own collective choice to abandon FGM/C.

For example, in West Africa, USAID has provided support to the Tostan project that incorporates health and rights information about FGM/C into a basic education curriculum that also teaches problem solving, math, and reading. As a result, thousands of villages in eight African countries in both West and East Africa have publicly abandoned FGM/C and other harmful traditional practices over the past 15 years. Another program in Senegal, called the Grandmother Project, has focused on empowering grandmothers and other elderly women to lead community discussions and call for change.

“What is most exciting for us about the movement is that it is community-led, and it is accelerating as we reach more communities. One declaration can lead to the next.” says Gannon Gillespie, Director of Strategic Development for Tostan, who notes that Tostan’s human rights-based program works well in part because it is very respectful of local language and culture.

“The approach we take is a bit different, and when it was just in Senegal, people maybe thought it was a fluke, something unique to that country at that moment. But now we have seen this same model—respectful education, community-led outreach within their extended family networks, and public declarations of abandonment—working in many different ethnic groups, regions, and across borders into many countries. So we now talk about February 6th as International FGC Abandonment Day, because that is what’s at stake: we can see this movement extended across Africa and around the world within a single generation. It’s a truly historic opportunity.”

Community-led outreach has also been seen in Ethiopia, where USAID has worked with more than 2,250 community and religious leaders to advocate for safer and healthier treatment for women and girls. Consequently, a national anti-FGM/C organization was established and the Ethiopian Parliament passed a law against FGM/C in 2006. Similarly, in Kenya, work in partnership with local religious scholars has helped to clarify local beliefs about FGM/C and provide more compelling arguments to abandon it. Religious leaders now collaborate with medical doctors to make recommendations based on science and women’s health.

Lastly, the medical community is a critical part of responding to and preventing the FGM/C. In Mali, USAID has worked in partnership with the Ministry of Health to help providers treat complications resulting from FGM/C as well as educate patients and community members on the risks of the practice. Surveys showed that following the program, the percentage of people in favor of abandoning FGM/C increased from 15 to 62 percent. The percentage who intended to have FGM/C performed on their daughters decreased from 81 to 33 percent.

It has been nearly a decade since Zero Tolerance Day was formally recognized. Though much work remains to be done, each year, more communities come together to assess the role of FGM/C in their lives. The result will be healthier more empowered girls and stronger communities for the future.