By Jillian C. Newman, UN Population Fund Intern
My little sister is 14 years old. She is a freshman in high school and spends her weekends hanging out with her friends, watching movies and going to high school football games. Her biggest worry right now is her math class. If we lived in one of the 30 countries where Female Genital Mutilation is routinely performed on girls entering puberty, my sister would live a very different life.
When Kakenya Ntaiya was 14 years old growing up in rural Kenya, she was faced with ending her education and preparing for marriage. Kakenya negotiated with her father to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in order to not get married, as was the traditional practice in her community. She was allowed to continue in school and eventually came to the United States for college, eventually earning a Ph.D. She returned to her community and set up a school for girls, where parents have to make the pledge that they will not subject their daughters to FGM as a condition of enrolling.
Over 200 million girls have not been as lucky as Kakenya and have been subjected to FGM. Sixty-eight-million girls are at risk to be subjected to FGM by 2030 if we don’t speed up our efforts to end this harmful practice. FGM is an internationally recognized human rights violation, yet so many girls are still at risk around the world. FGM can cause health complications, birth complications, infertility, and even death. It’s a traditional cultural practice in many places with strong support by some communities.
Female Genital Mutilation is a violation of girls’ rights. It’s a harmful practice that can stop girls from reaching their full potential. To stop this, a coordinated effort all over the world by governments, local community leaders, and NGOs is needed. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is working toward eradicating FGM. The African Union also recently endorsed an initiative to end FGM. This is a positive step toward ending FGM, but also highlights how prevalent it is, especially in African countries.
Female Genital Mutilation is not a standalone issue, as Kakenya’s story shows. In many instances, FGM is in preparation for child marriage and an end to formal education. Globally, one in five girls is married before they reach the age of 18. In the least developed countries, that number rises to 40% of girls being married before age 18 and 12% before age 15. Child marriage threatens the future of young girls, puts their health at risk, and threatens their lives. Child marriage puts girls at risk of pregnancy as adolescents, which increases the possibility of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. This is the leading cause of death among older adolescent girls. Girls in child marriages tend to be less educated, as they are often pulled out of school, and they are more likely to live in rural areas. Many families living in poverty believe that child marriage is a way to safeguard for their daughter.
I had always known that FGM and child marriage occurred in the world, but it seemed very far removed from my life. When I began interning for UNFPA I realized that neither of these practices are as uncommon as I thought. UNFPA is working toward eradicating FGM and child marriage. All girls deserve to be able to reach their full potential and have their lives valued and respected. To protect the future of girls everywhere t is vital that both governments and individuals support the work of organizations like UNFPA.
My sister is lucky that we live in a place where girls’ lives are valued and viewed as equal to boys. Millions of girls around the world aren’t so lucky. I’m grateful for UNFPA making a difference and working for gender equality and the end of harmful practices around the world.