Include female genitalia on Unesco World Heritage list, NGO

Female genital mutilation is a harmful traditional practice. An international NGO says including female genitals in Unesco World Heritage List would help in the fight against FGM.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The International Solidarity Foundation says this would be a protective measure against female genital mutilation.
  • Foundation's pledge ran on billboards near the UN agency’s headquarters in Paris on the eve of the International Day of the Girl Child.
  • According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022, the prevalence of FGM is 15 per cent among girls and women aged 15 to 49.

On a day the world marked the International Day of the Girl Child (October 11), a non-governmental organisation proposed the inclusion of the female genitalia on the Unesco World Heritage list as a protective measure against female genital mutilation.

The application was submitted by the International Solidarity Foundation (ISF) to Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. ISF also addressed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) directly with a pledge that ran on billboards close to the UN agency’s headquarters in Paris on the eve of the International Day of the Girl Child.

ISF is a Finnish organisation working against Female genital mutilation (FGM) internationally. The application is aimed at protecting girls and women from extreme violence.

“For a subject to be included on the Unesco World Heritage List, its unique universal value must be demonstrated. Without the female genitalia, no person would exist.

"Female genital mutilation is an international problem that causes serious health issues and systematically undermines the societal position of women.

"Therefore, the female genitalia should be recognised and protected by an internationally acknowledged entity," said Saara Manelius, ISF head of communications.

“FGM is a global issue, affecting over 200 million girls and women worldwide. According to a recent study by the University of Birmingham, 44,000 girls and women die annually as a result of FGM. Every minute, six girls are mutilated,” said ISF in a statement.

Teivo Teivainen, the chairman of the Finnish Unesco committee and professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, termed the initiative significant. 

“Proposing the female genitalia as a Unesco World Heritage site is important for the visibility of women, women's sexuality, and violations against women's genitalia. It is also significant because it can foster discussions on the extent to which Unesco World Heritage sites currently relate to the identity of individual states or regions.

“Whatever the outcome of this application, I hope it inspires reflections on the opportunities for government officials and decision-makers to promote the protection of women's genitalia,” said Prof Teivainen.

Universal value

Unesco World Heritage sites are considered to be universally valuable to the extent that their protection and preservation are the responsibility of humankind. Such sites include the Great Wall of China and the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru.

FGM is extreme gender-based violence. It is a manifestation of inequality and a human rights violation with far-reaching consequences on a girl's or woman's life.

According to doctors, FGM causes numerous psychological, emotional, and physical health issues and can ultimately lead to death.

In Africa, ISF operates in Kenya, Somaliland and Ethiopia with the goal of ending FGM worldwide. It works closely with local communities, experts, authorities, and religious leaders, and seeks to change attitudes, enabling the abandonment of traditions that control women and girls, such as FGM.

Despite being outlawed in Kenya in 2011, FGM remains a pressing issue, largely due to traditional beliefs and practices. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), more than four million Kenyan girls and women have undergone FGM and that amounts to 21 per cent of those aged 15 to 49.

Cutting is performed at different ages in Kenya, and Unicef notes that some ethnic groups practise it after age 15. In other communities, however, that can be as early as nine or 10.

The risk of FGM isn’t uniform across Kenya, though it tends to be higher in rural areas, among low-income families with less education, or among certain ethnic groups. With the exception of the Kisii community, where it’s predominantly carried out by healthcare professionals, FGM in Kenya is largely performed by traditional practitioners.

During the Covid-19 crisis, FGM rose significantly in Kenya when schoolgirls were at home.

According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022, the prevalence of FGM is 15 per cent among girls and women aged 15 to 49. At least 93 per cent of women and 89 per cent of men aged 15–49 believe the practice should be stopped.