Try alternative rites of passage

by Amref Health Africa

Twelve years after the UN General Assembly designated February 6 as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C), the practice is prevalent in parts of the world.

Some 200 million women and girls in 30 African and Middle East countries have undergone FGM/C—partial or full removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons—with 55 million of the victims in 28 African countries.

The African Union (AU) and other multilateral bodies recognise FGM/C as harmful and perpetuating human rights violations and gender-based violence against women and girls. Though deeply rooted as a rite of passage in many African cultures, it sustains the existence of gender inequities that harm the victims’ sexual and reproductive wellbeing.

It mainly leads to the child, early and forced marriage, one of the biggest barriers to the education and economic advancement of girls and women and a significant contributor to the cycle of poverty among survivors.

To end FGM/C, the AU has, through its Saleema Initiative, called on member states to adopt a multi-sectoral approach with a focus on addressing underlying social norms and cultural dimensions, enacting and implementing strong legislative frameworks, allocating domestic financial resources, promoting use of evidence and data and engaging civil society and community groups.

At the 25th International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+25) in 2019, there was a renewed commitment by governments and civil society to eliminate all harmful practices.

At the highest political level of the Summit’s host government, President Kenyatta made a bold commitment to end FGM/C in Kenya by this year. It may have been complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak but such high-level commitments and political traction can inspire positive change.

International treaties

Many AU member states have signed and ratified the various international treaties and conventions that prioritise the protection of human rights for women and girls through the elimination of the vice. These include the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and its Protocol on Women’s Rights (the Maputo Protocol), as well as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Covid-19 is a powerful reminder of what happens when we fail to safeguard the future of women and girls. An Amref Health Africa study in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Senegal shows it has led to increased FGM/C and child marriage cases as school closures and loss of income exposed young girls and adolescents to higher risk in communities that still valued the practices. UNFPA says two million more cases of FGM/C by 2030 could have been averted.

FGM/C seriously risks women’s and girls’ health. But it also causes significant economic harm, draining vital resources through loss of income from women’s inability to learn and engage in meaningful participation in the workforce, and through medical costs due to treatment of complications arising from the vice.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it would cost $1.4 billion (Sh159 billion) a year to treat all FGM/C victims, which could rise by half by 2050 if not addressed.

Allow not the pandemic to erase decades of progress in protecting girls’ and women’s health, education and autonomy. Leverage strong political will to end the vice and turn that into tangible action. As governments focus on pandemic recovery, let them invest in interventions to safeguard the rights of at-risk girls and women.


That includes multi-sectoral collaboration to strengthen relevant government ministries and agencies to enforce anti-FGM/C laws; engagement of local champions and community leaders to protect human rights and promote gender equality, and investment in community-led programmes to not only highlight the risks of FGM/C but also provide contextually relevant alternative rites of passage.

Community-led Alternative Rites of Passage (CL-ARP)—which safeguards the health and wellbeing of girls and women while allowing them to partake in an important rite of passage that gives them a sense of kinship and equips them with useful knowledge and skills relevant within their cultural contexts—has worked in areas with a high prevalence of FGM/C.

In Kenya and Tanzania, over 20, 000 girls have undergone the CL-ARP, a model that has seen a 24 per cent decline in the practice in Kajiado County in the past decade.

As the world moves towards a post-pandemic future, we owe it to girls and women at risk of this outdated practice to leave no one behind. Ending FGM/C is a significant step towards restoring the agency and dignity of women and girls who, for far too long, have missed out on opportunities for better, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Dr Esho is the Director, Centre of Excellence to End FGM/C, Amref Health Africa. [email protected]. @TammaryE

Article first published on

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