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Fighting female genital mutilation

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On 6 February 2003 Stella Obasanjo, First Lady of Nigeria, launched an International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation at a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.

The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. It confirms that the procedure has no health benefits but can cause severe bleeding, sepsis, problems urinating and, later, potential complications in childbirth and an increased risk of newborn deaths.

The WHO says that although no religious scripts demand FGM many people believe the practice has religious support. Elsewhere there are social conventions and the pressure to conform to traditional cultures to improve marriage prospects and produce “better” wives.

FGM is usually carried out by traditional circumcisers but also sometimes by health care providers who, although professionally required not to cause harm to their patients and urged by the WHO not to perform the procedures, often claim that at least they work in a cleaner environment.

Up to 140 million girls and women worldwide are said to be living with the consequences of FGM. The practice is most common in western, eastern and north-eastern parts of Africa, where an estimated 92 million girls from 10 years of age upwards have undergone FGM. It also occurs in some countries in Asia and the Middle East and among immigrant communities in Europe and North America.

FGM is illegal in many countries, including the UK. However, Amnesty International estimates that in Europe alone FGM affects about 500,000 women and girls and puts another 180,000 at risk each year.

Stella Obasanjo died in October 2005 but her awareness day was adopted by the United Nations, to be marked on 6 February each year.

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