NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - The United Nations resolution on Thursday calling on all nations to ban female genital mutilation is a landmark document but there remains the question of whether governments will act on it to curb the brutal traditional practice, according to experts and activists.
“It won’t bring any changes unless civil society organizations use it as an advocacy tool pressuring governments to do more than lip service and UN agencies, that work on the issue, use it in developing their country programs, thereby encouraging countries to implement the recommendations provided therein,” Faiza Mohamed, Nairobi director of the women’s rights NGO Equality Now, told TrustLaw.
According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 140 million women and girls around the world, particularly in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, already have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), an often crude and sometimes fatal procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia.
The adoption of the General Assembly resolution represents the culmination of years of advocacy by the Ban FGM Campaign, an international coalition of human rights activists that includes No Peace Without Justice, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, Euronet-FGM, and the NGOs La Palabre, Manifesto 99 and Equality Now.
The call for a global ban is unenforceable by the U.N., but its very existence is a potentially powerful new tool for activists and health workers lobbying governments and cultural leaders to recognize the destructive impact of FGM on the lives of women and take steps to eradicate it, according to several advocates.
“What we know from our experience with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is that normative frameworks such as the ban on FGM play a critical role in establishing human rights standards and defining what is and what is not acceptable globally,” said John Hendra, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director, policy and programme, at UN Women.
Some said the resolution may derive added strength from the fact that it was adopted by a consensus of two-thirds of UN member states, with 67 nations supporting an initiative led by the 54 members of the African Group. It is estimated that 3 million girls undergo FGM every year in Africa alone.
“The African-led resolution is especially ground-breaking because it addresses FGM squarely within the human rights framework,” said Equality Now’s Mohamed. “Although General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they set international norms.”
The resolution signals “universal agreement that female genital mutilation constitutes a violation of human rights, which all countries of the world should address through ‘all necessary measures, including enacting and enforcing legislation to prohibit FGM and to protect women and girls from this form of violence, and to end impunity,’” said a statement by Niccolo' Figa-Talamanca, Secretary General of No Peace Without Justice.
Founded by Emma Bonino, who also is vice president of the Italian Senate, No Peace Without Justice has led the effort to push through the UN call.
In an Op-Ed piece published Thursday in the International Herald Tribune, Bonino said the resolution establishes that “the prerequisite for addressing a human rights violation is the establishment of a clear legislative framework for deterrence and protection of potential victims, which in turn strengthens grass-roots activists, placing their work unequivocally within the rule of law and creating the context in which government and civil society can cooperate most effectively.”
No Peace Without Justice plans to convene a conference in Rome in early February to discuss the next steps needed for states to address the resolution’s recommendations, including the passage of new anti-FGM laws and the implementation of existing legislation.
Many countries still lack legislation banning FGM and those that have laws often fail to enforce them. For example, while 20 of the 28 African countries where FGM is common have passed laws against it, enforcement is weak and the practice continues with impunity. While implementation remains a problem, progress has been made in the passage of anti-FGM laws, which the resolution may strengthen.
In an audio statement released by No Peace Without Justice, Linah Kilimo, a Kenyan member of parliament who has been active in combating FGM, noted that Kenya passed a law against FGM in 2011. “So this resolution…will enhance or support the standing of the law we already have,” she said. “And, because in our new constitution, Kenya has also accepted international instruments to be part of our law, then definitely it is a plus to the law that we have that…the world has passed a resolution (calling for ) banning female genital mutilation.”
The resolution also offers support and tools for activists working on the ground, Gannon Gillespie, director of strategic development at the NGO Tostan, told TrustLaw.
“At the country level, it may help more countries to look at this practice and to look at the most effective ways of approaching it,” he said. “However, while international and national legislation is important, the most crucial mechanism to ending the practice is education.”
“At the local level, information about the ban can be incorporated into community discussions about human rights and harmful practices, such as female genital cutting (FGC), as well as being incorporated into social mobilization activities that reach larger regional audiences,” Gillespie said.
Although FGM is ingrained in the culture of many countries, particularly in Africa, attitudes can be changed. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), over the past three years, some 8,000 communities across the world, including in 15 African countries, have abandoned the practice - 2,000 communities in the last year alone.
Tostan has had significant success in Senegal, for example, where over 5,000 communities have publicly declared their abandonment of FGM, said Gillespie.
“The greatest single challenge after this resolution to eradicate FGM is to have the political will that has been expressed at the level of the UN… reflected at the national level,” Alvilda Jablonko, FGM Coordinator at No Peace Without Justice, told TrustLaw.
“Having the expression here (at the UN) certainly opens a path that was not there previously and now it is up to parliaments and governments to honour their commitments and to activists, such as ourselves, to push them to do so,” she said.
For more stories, videos and graphics please see TrustLaw’s multimedia special report on FGM at http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/news/special-coverage/fgm/